Speaker: Rev Dr Edwin Tay
Sermon Title: Sola Scriptura
Scripture Text: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1 Paul, Silas and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace and peace to you.
2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
A very blessed Sunday to all of you who are participating in today’s online worship service. I bring you greetings from Trinity Theological College and would like to thank Pastor Daniel for inviting me to preach today. I do recall preaching at Hermon BP Church quite a number of years ago. I was then serving at the Biblical Graduate School of Theology was invited by our brother Hai Yang to preach on a few occasions. He was then the pastor at Hermon.
So it is a wonderful thing to be preaching again at Hermon. I count it not only a great privilege for me to be invited to preach the Word of God this Sunday, but even more so to preach on a Sunday that commemorates a very significant event in the history of the Church.
Many churches around the world are commemorating the great event of the Protestant Reformation this weekend. In the Methodist liturgical tradition for instance, there is provision for the observance of Reformation Day on the 31st of October or on the last Sunday of October. The 31st of October is the day that the German Reformer, Martin Luther, issued his 95 theses.
The Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 16th century was an event that led to the establishment of churches and the spiritual renewal of many Christians under the sovereign hand of God. Its effects are felt until today. [Slide 2] The legacy of the Protestant Reformation has often been summed up in terms of Five Solas. Some of you may already know these 5 solas by heart.
They are: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone), Solus Christus (through Christ alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone).
These Solas are Reformation slogans which may not necessarily be used by the Protestant Reformers themselves. In my own reading of the Reformers, I do not recall the specific use of these solas in the form in which they are stated in popular usage. But it is not the form of these solas that we are after when we use them, but the ideas for which they stand. The Five Solas are helpful slogans used to summarize the ethos of the Protestant Reformation.
The subject that I’ll be dealing with today is the Reformation slogan, Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura is a Latin slogan that can be translated as “Scripture alone”, or “by Scripture alone”. Let us come before the Lord in prayer as we seek to be instructed and encouraged by his Holy Word and as we recount his renewing work in the Protestant Reformation.
May the words of my mouth…
The date was 17th of April 1521. Dr Martin Luther, a monk of the Augustinian Order, and a theological lecturer from the University of Wittenberg, is summoned to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. As he appeared before the Emperor, he knew that his life was hanging in the balance.
Four years earlier, Luther had initiated an academic debate over the doctrine and practice of Indulgences. The sale of indulgence was a monetary payment made for securing partial remission of sins. Luther was against the sale of indulgences. As a Bible teacher, he was angry that this sale of indulgence should even be taught and practiced in the church. In his opinion, we cannot buy the forgiveness of sins or reduce the penalty of sins by monetary payment. Only God can forgive sins. Only God can acquit sinners from the penalty of sins.
And so on October 31st, 1517, he challenged the doctrine and practice of indulgences. He did so by nailing 95 theses on the door of the Church at Wittenberg as any other theologian would do if they wanted to start a theological debate. But little did he realize that what he did, eventually led to a revolution that shook the very foundation of the Pope’s authority and that of the Church of his day.
On 3rd January 1521, four years after nailing his 95 theses, Luther was excommunicated by papal bull for his views. [Slide 5] A papal bull, by the way, is an official letter that is issued by the Pope. In Luther’s case, it was Pope Leo X. Since Luther has been excommunicated by Pope Leo, there was actually no need for him to appear before the Emperor. But due to strong political forces in support of Luther, the Emperor was pressured to give Luther a hearing at what has been called, the Diet of Worms.
Now, the Diet of Worms is not referring to an item on an exotic food menu. Diet refers to an assembly, and Worms is a city in Germany where the assembly occurred. And so on 17th April 1521, at exactly 4pm in the afternoon, Luther appeared before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
Displayed before Luther was a number of books that bore his name as the author. He was asked to respond to two simple questions: (1) Did he acknowledge that he is the author of the books that are displayed before him; (2) Would he stand by them or would he retract anything that he has written in them.
This is the critical moment. This is the moment where Luther’s life hung in the balance. Yes, he has been excommunicated from the Catholic Church. But he is in the presence of an Emperor who has the power to show him favor. How should he answer those two questions? Deeply aware that his life was at stake, Luther asked for time to think. He was given 24 hours. The next day, at 6pm, he appeared before the Emperor again to offer his reply. This is what he said [Slide 7]:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Holy Scriptures or by clear reason (for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, since it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves), I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”
Luther’s defiance sealed his destiny. The next day, the Emperor called Luther “a notorious heretic”. And this heretic had to be silenced. The Diet convened for another session and declared Luther to be a criminal who had committed high treason. Luther was condemned as the leader of a notorious heresy that must be exterminated. In other words, Luther was condemned to death.
I took some time to tell the story of Luther’s response before Emperor Charles V, because I want you to appreciate the context from which the principle of sola scriptura emerged. [Slide 8] When Luther said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God” he was placing the authority of Scripture above the authority of the pope, above that of church councils, and above that of his own conscience.
He is not rejecting totally, the authority of the Pope or that of church councils. What he said was that the Pope and Councils have repeatedly erred and contradicted themselves. In other words, in teachings where they have not erred but are in agreement with Scripture, they have legitimate authority and can do much good.
Sola Scriptura is translated as “Scripture Alone”. But what it actually means is not that Scripture is the ONLY authority for the Christian. What it means is that Scripture is the final or supreme authority for the Christian. This is a point that has frequently been misconstrued both by Protestants and Catholics.
The principle of Sola Scriptura acknowledges secondary authorities such as the teachings of Church officers and Church Councils. But their teachings have to be regulated by Scripture. Their authority is secondary to Scripture.
This means that should they err, should their teachings depart from Scripture, we should choose to stand with Scripture even if it cost us our lives. We see that very clearly in the case of Luther. For the rest of our time together, I want to explore with you, why is it the case, that Holy Scripture is the final authority for the Christian. According to the Reformers, what are some of the reasons for asserting the supreme authority of Scripture?
The first reason is this. [Slide 10] Scripture is the final authority for the Christian because it is the Words of Scripture that reveal the Gospel. In the passage that was read to us earlier from 1 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul gives us an account of how the Gospel came to the church in Thessalonica.
He tells us in verse 4: “For we know, brothers, loved by God, that he has chosen you.” How do we know that God has chosen these Thessalonians to be his people? Paul goes on in verse 5 to describe how they became believers in Christ: “because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
Notice how Paul describes how the Gospel came to them. The Gospel came not only in word. In other words, the Gospel DID come in words. It was communicated in words. Words are not the only thing Paul wanted to say about how the Gospel came. But words are crucial to Paul. They are the medium God uses to reveal the Gospel.
In his second letter to Timothy, chapter 1 and verse 13, Paul urges Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me…” Sound words here refer to words that convey the truth of the Gospel. When Paul debated with the Jews in the synagogue in Ephesus about the kingdom of God, words were used. When he taught from the Scriptures daily in the Hall of Tyrannus for two years, words were used. The words of Paul were words employed to explain or expound the words of Scripture. They were words that gave life and hope, because they were words that carried the Gospel.
Words can convey truth. But words can also distort truth. In the year 2017, some of you may recall that there was serious tension between North Korea and the United State that led eventually to a meeting between the two heads of state in Singapore in 2018. Before the Singapore Summit as it was called, there was even talk about the real possibility of a nuclear war. In the midst of this serious political tension, our Prime Minister visited the United States and spoke with President Donald Trump about the North Korean crisis.
He said to President Trump that Singapore, like America, is committed to countering the North Korean threat. Prime Minister Lee was of course, referring to the threat of a nuclear crisis. President Trump responded by affirming America’s commitment to do the same. [Slide 12] But when Fox News covered the conversation on Television, it captured the gist of the conversation in these words: “Singapore is helping US confront North Korea.” You see, words can convey truth. Words can also distort truth.
Just as there are sound words that reveal the Gospel, there are also words that distort the Gospel. The Protestant Reformers were very aware that they were living in a time where the Gospel was obscured. Ironically, it was obscured by the words of a translation of the Bible that the church has been using for a long time.
For many centuries, the Church had been using a Latin translation of the Bible as her official Bible. Many of us will know that the original words of the Bible are in Hebrew and Greek. Since the 4th century A.D., scholars have tried their best to translate the Hebrew and Greek into Latin. But despite their best efforts, the Latin Bible contains many discrepancies with the original words of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. Some discrepancies are minor ones. But some are major errors.
Let me cite one example of a major error. [Slide 14] In Matthew 4:17, we read, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” This is the translation from the original Greek. But in the Latin Bible, what Jesus preaches is not “Repent”, but “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Repentance and doing penance are two very different things. Repentance is an inward attitude, a change of mind. Do penance is an outward practice. This is one of the things that stumbled Luther as he struggled with the question of his own sins. How can one approach God and find forgiveness for our sins? Repentance is part of the answer. But Luther was led into thinking that he had to do penance.
It is not surprising that the first 4 of his 95 theses centers on the word “repent” and its meaning in Matthew 4:17. Can you see what Luther is doing with his opening theses in the 95 theses? He is reclaiming the words of Scripture. Getting the words of Scripture right is so important that he tried to persuade the authorities in Germany to establish schools that teach the Biblical languages. This is what he wrote to them:
“And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit [Eph 6.17] is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held;
they are the larder in which this food is stored; …they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments…it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish. ”
Paul says to the Thessalonians, “our Gospel came to you in word”. The words of Scripture reveal the Gospel and shape our own words about the Gospel. Luther and his fellow Reformers understood this very well. The Words of Scripture reveals the Gospel. This is the first reason underlying the Reformation principle of sola scriptura.
The second reason is this. The Words of Scripture reforms the Church.
What impresses me about these Thessalonian Christians is their tremendous Christian testimony. Listen to how Paul describes them in verses 6-7: “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
This is high praise from the apostle. He is saying that the lives of these Christians reveal Jesus Christ. They imitated Paul and his co-workers. Since Paul and his co-workers imitated Christ, these Christians were also imitators of the Lord Jesus. How did they imitate Jesus?
Jesus, “who for the JOY that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Heb 12:2) as the writer to the book of Hebrews tells us. Like Jesus, the church at Thessalonica went through “much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”
Paul says in verse 8 that their testimony was so significant that it “sounded forth…not only in Macedonia and Achaia; but also in every place your faith toward God had gone forth…” (v8). What is it that makes these Christians able to endure suffering? What is it that fills them with joy instead of despair and bitterness in the midst of suffering? What is it that makes them like Christ?
Part of the answer is the Gospel that came to them in word. Verse 6, “having received THE WORD in much tribulation…” Verse 8, “…THE WORD of the Lord has sounded forth from you…” The Gospel found in the words of Scripture is part of the answer to their testimony. But it is an insufficient explanation. Words alone do not make one rejoice in the midst of suffering. The words of Scripture are extremely important because they are carriers of the Gospel. But they do not just convey meaning. They also have the power to impact lives and transform the world.
Paul says, “…our Gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power…” Then he goes on to mention two things: the source of that power, which is the Holy Spirit, and the effect of that power, which is “full conviction” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Words of Scripture has the power to revive and reform the church and transform the world.
This is because God has ordained that the words of Scripture are his own words. That’s what Paul means when he describes Scripture as “God-breathed” in 1 Tim 3:16. He means to say that the words of Scripture are the very words of God. Luther says, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.”
The French Reformer John Calvin puts it differently but the point he makes is the same: “we owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God…” Why did Calvin say that about the Bible? It is not because he worships the Bible. It is because like Paul, he is convinced by the Spirit, that the words of Scripture are the very words of God. And God authenticates his own Word by the power of his own Spirit in the lives of men and women.
In one of Luther’s sermons, he gave an account of his strategy for reforming the church. What was his strategy? He says, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with Philip and Amsdorf [Luther’s friends], the word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the word did everything.”
Underlying Luther’s strategy is the conviction that the words of Scripture have the power to reform the church because they are the words of the living God. No other book in the world has that privilege or that authority. That is why Scripture alone is the final and supreme authority for the Christian. The Words of Scripture are the Words of God. This is a fundamental assertion in the principle of sola scriptura.
The Reformers were not trying to forge something new. The fact is that none of them were setting out to change the world. All they wanted to do was go back to the Bible, back to the Word of God. As they did that, they were led by the Spirit to put their faith alone, in Christ alone, and found the message of salvation by grace alone, to the glory of God alone.
As a Bible-Presbyterian Church, Hermon BPC is a child of the Protestant Reformation. I am sure that as Hermonites, you are all familiar with the very first item in your statement of faith. This is how the first item in your statement of faith reads:
“We believe in the divine, verbal and plenary inspiration of the Scriptures in the original languages, their consequent inerrancy and infallibility, and, as the Word of God, the supreme and final authority in faith and life.”
Hermon BP Church believes in the inspiration of the Scriptures in the original languages. You remember Luther’s words about the original languages that I cited earlier? God has preserved what he wants to communicate to us in words in the original languages. That includes the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As your statement of faith asserts, the words of Holy Scripture are the very words of God. If this is true, then as your statement of faith puts it, Scripture is “the supreme and final authority in faith and life.”
This is an extremely clear statement of the principle of Sola Scriptura. Church tradition, experience, and our reason all play a significant part in guiding us on how to live. But it is Holy Scripture that is to be our ultimate and supreme authority.
Many Christians are very troubled as they look at what’s happening in the world today. Not too long ago, my wife received a text from a friend of ours who is living and working abroad. She wrote to express how disturbed she is at many of the changes going on in the country at which she is working.
For example, some schools are asking very young children what gender they feel like. And if a boy feels like he’s a girl, teachers will start letting him use the female toilet. In fact some parents are allowing their children who are under 10 years old to have sex change operations. The challenge of sexuality is just one type of challenge among a host of others such as religious extremism and the intense suffering of Christians in certain countries.
The church will surely feel the pressure to conform to our surrounding culture. As we observe what’s happening in the world and feel the increasing pressure to conform to the global culture, how are we to live as Christians here in our nation? How are we to nurture our young in the faith in a digital and globally connected world?
What are Christians in Mount Hermon Bible-Presbyterian Church to do in the light of what’s happening to the world around us? If there is one key lesson that we can learn from the Reformation, it is this. We have this book. We still have this book. And our response must be to return to its words and the truth they convey.
God has preserved his Word for us. And the words in this book contain the message of hope for the world. It points us to Christ alone as the only mediator between God and man. It points us to sin’s forgiveness by faith alone, in Christ alone, through grace alone. And it tells us that it is the glory of God alone that will be revealed at the end of the world’s history.
We may not be able to anticipate the specific details of the challenges that may come our way. But if we are the children of the Reformation, we do know what must be done to meet them. We need to return to Scripture; to teach it; to preach it; to read it; to pray it; to let it become life to us by the Spirit of God. For the words of Scripture are the words of God, and they have the power to save and revive us, and to transform the world.
Luther puts it this way in stanzas 3 and 4 of his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. I will close with the words of Luther’s hymn.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth;
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever. Amen!