Scripture Alone – The Foundation of Our Faith
“Be ye followers of God as dear children.” —Ephesians 5:1
We often speak of ourselves, referring to our Lutheran heritage, as “children of the Reformation,” as those who are, by God’s grace alone, the beneficiaries of Luther’s monumental work of returning outward Christendom to the foundation of faith. That foundation is, according to the clear and unmistakable words of Holy Writ, “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20) upon which Christ’s church is “built” (Ephesians 2:20), the foundation to which our “hope” is anchored, “both sure and steadfast” (Hebrews 6:19), the only source and norm (or standard) of Christian doctrine and practice. Indeed, the “formal principle” of the Reformation, the basic premise upon which Luther’s work was grounded (and upon which we by the grace of God still stand today) is sola Scriptura — Scripture alone. It is this principle of Scripture itself (German: das Schriftprinzip) which establishes the absolute reliability of what we believe and teach, profess and practice, because it acknowledges the infallible and immutable, verbally-inspired Word of God as the only legitimate source of spiritual truth (John 8:31-32; 17:17) and the only reliable standard against which all teaching and practice is to be judged (I Corinthians 14:37; II Timothy 1:13; Romans 16:17; etc.).
Ironically, as a loyal son of the Roman Catholic Church in his early days, Luther himself had accepted the authority of Rome already since early childhood and throughout his formal education. Rome’s authority was that claimed by the Papacy to set, to declare, and even to develop its dogmas — its formal statements of doctrine and practice — according to a much different standard, the standard referred to by the Roman Church as “sacred tradition,” including but not limited to Holy Scripture (as interpreted by “Holy Mother Church”). Rome also regards as sources and norms of doctrine and practice the apocryphal books of the Old and New Testaments, the writings of the ancient church fathers, and the pronouncements, decrees and encyclicals of “the Church,” that is, of the popes and their councils — all of which together determine what is to be taught and believed by Roman Catholics, extra-Scriptural sources, “the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9).
Not surprisingly the doctrines, laws and practices of Rome brought Luther no peace of mind or of conscience with God but kept him in a state of constant fear and uncertainty regarding his sins, his unworthiness in the sight of God, and his lot in eternity. Only through his study of the Bible was Luther brought by the Holy Spirit “to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4), to confidence in God’s mercy, who justifies poor sinners alone by His grace for Christ’s sake, totally apart from the works of the Law (Romans 3:20-28). It also gave him the assurance that whatever is taught, believed and practiced according to the perfect rule of Scripture alone is “most certainly true” (Cf. John 8:31-32), the phrase with which he concluded his explanations of all three articles of the Apostles’ Creed. On the other hand, all doctrines of men, whether they can be shown to be contrary to Scripture or whether they are mere adiaphora [matters neither commanded nor forbidden by God’s Word] craftily disguised as the will of God (Romans 16:18; Ephesians 4:14; etc.) and laid upon the consciences of God’s people as His commandments (Matthew 15:19), must be rejected as “lying and deceiving by God’s Name” —false and pernicious doctrine.
It was the God-given principle of “sola Scriptura” to which Luther steadfastly held when he was summoned to appear at a meeting of the Imperial Parliament on April 16, 1521. There in the city of Worms [pronounced vohrms] on the Rhine River, Emperor Charles V, princes and dukes of the empire, and representatives of Pope Leo X had assembled to demand that Luther take back all his writings in which he had criticized Rome, accused it of false teachings, and condemned its abusive practices. So as not to appear personally arrogant and defiant, Luther asked for one day’s time to consider the demand and to prepare his response. On April 18th, surrounded by copies of books and pamphlets he had written and in full view of the “world,” as it turned out, Luther stood before the meeting and defended his writings in a lengthy speech, concluding with this mighty and uncompromising statement:
“Unless I can be prevailed upon by the testimonies of Scripture or by clear reasons —for I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone, who quite obviously have often erred and contradicted themselves— I cannot, nor do I want to, retract anything. I remain convinced by the Holy Scriptures I have cited, and my conscience is bound by the Word of God. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen.”
Historians disagree as to Luther’s exact words on that momentous occasion, but one thing is certain: By God’s grace and with His help, Luther took his stand upon Scripture alone. He stood resolutely upon “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the Chief Cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). He stood his ground, fully persuaded of the Scriptures’ absolute infallibility, inerrancy, immutability, clarity, sufficiency and authority as the only source and standard of Christian doctrine and practice and fully convinced that unflinching adherence to that single standard is the only legitimate mark of genuine orthodoxy (Jeremiah 23:28b; John 8:31-32).
As we would, of course, expect according to Scripture itself (I Peter 5:8-9; etc.), Satan has not been content to sit idly on the sidelines and to leave the “children of the Reformation” unmolested. What should have been and could have remained a revitalized and doctrinally-focused Lutheran communion, solidly anchored on the Schriftprinzip, “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10) was “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine by the sleight of men and cunning craftiness, whereby they [lay] in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14), at Satan’s behest, “the very elect” — if that had been possible (Matthew 24:24). Like a paper boat on a breezy pond, the church that had been freed from the tyranny of the Pope by the Holy Spirit through the Word in Luther’s Reformation was set upon by “winds of change” and was tossed to and fro over the next five centuries by a series of “isms,” movements among “thinkers,” philosophers, and “theologians” falsely so-called, which drove the “children of the Reformation” aground upon the rocks of disunity, false doctrine, and spiritual destruction! Those “isms” worked like gangrene (II Timothy 2:17) to destroy even the certainty of salvation by undermining the simple Christian’s confidence in Holy Scripture as the only source and norm of doctrine and practice (Cf. Romans 16:18)! Along came the “isms,” one by one, and set upon the sleepy, unwary virgins (cf. Matthew 25:1ff.), sucking the oil of the pure Gospel out of their lamps and replacing it with so much “hot air”! — Pietism, subjectivism, rationalism, mysticism, fundamentalism, liberalism, higher criticism, relativism, pessimism, accommodationism, unionism, syncretism, sinful separatism, ecumenism, and even conservatism (whatever that means, depending upon what is being “conserved”) and confessionalism (which more often than not gives lip service to the Lutheran Confessions without true orthodoxy in doctrine and practice).
Tragically, the wide divergency of doctrinal positions among those today who bear Luther’s name is ample testimony to the fact that the “formal principle” is no longer adhered to with any consistency. In some “Lutheran” bodies it has actually disappeared. Concerning those, nothing more need really be said. They are what they are; they don’t even pretend to be Scripture-centered. In other bodies, the confession of sola Scriptura exists in name only, while opposing factions within the body debate historical and social contexts, exegetical differences, textual variants in the manuscripts of Scripture, the viewpoints of “the fathers,” what Luther, Chemnitz, Quenstedt, Walther and others said about this or that, and so-called “practical considerations” in order to find loopholes, exceptions, special circumstances, and “divine” or “apostolic” precedent to justify their differences. In the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, for example, the once-orthodox church-body of Walther, Pieper, and other staunch confessors of the truth, we now see an outward fellowship of really strange bedfellows: “Liberals,” “moderates,” “conservatives,” and “confessionals” differing with one another, even openly, in doctrine and practice but maintaining a guise of unity in an effort to “save Synod” each from the other. Such a farcical circus with its non-stop posturing only deceives the simple and unwary into believing that doctrinal discipline (Brief Statement, ¶29) is actually being maintained on the basis of Scripture while allowing some room for “reasonable diversity” among Christians. So-called “conservatives” and “confessionals” continue to “mark” error and errorists, but they never “avoid them” (Romans 16:17). They “admonish” heretics, but they never “reject” them (Titus 3:10). They claim to “stand fast” (I Corinthians 16:13) upon sola Scriptura so long as they are not forced to choose between Scripture and their membership in Synod, or their pastorate, or their synodical pension! Such theological “whimps” are hardly what Luther would have called “conservatives” or “confessionals,” who wrote:
And take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife,
let these all be gone! They yet have nothing won!
The Kingdom ours remaineth!
Similar lip-service to sola Scriptura is rendered in other church bodies which call themselves “Lutheran” but tolerate diversity in doctrine and practice out of a false concept of “love” to the erring, or on the basis of an arbitrary distinction between “doctrines divisive of fellowship” and “doctrines not divisive of fellowship.” Who is kidding whom?? The Lord declares through Jeremiah: “He that hath My Word, let him speak My Word faithfully” (23:28), and through Amos: “Can two walk together except they be agreed??” (3:3). In Leviticus 19, God Himself shows how we are to demonstrate love to an erring brother, saying: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart; thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor and not suffer sin upon him.” Unpopular though it be nowadays to engage in polemics, that is, to refute false doctrine, to admonish the erring, to reject and avoid those who will not heed correction, to take a “stand” and to make it count regardless of the consequences, this is what Scripture demands of every faithful Christian, pastor and layman alike! (Matthew 10:19ff.; II Timothy 4:2ff.).
By God’s grace, we in our beloved Conference have stood foursquare on Scripture alone down through the years, recognizing the Word of God as the sole determiner of what is preached and taught in our churches, practiced among us, committed to students in our seminary, printed in our position papers and in our Concordia Lutheran, and agreed to in meetings with other groups whose stance we must carefully examine (I John 4:1). “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy Name give glory, for Thy mercy and for Thy Truth’s sake!” (Psalm 115:1). Indeed it is not to our credit personally or collectively that Scripture alone has been and continues to be the sole source and norm of what we stand for; but the Lord in His great mercy and according to His promise has preserved His precious Word to us in these latter days, His Word in its truth and purity —a blessing for which we are grateful beyond expression.
As was the case with Luther, however, our standing fast upon Scripture’s sure foundation has not been without cost. Over the past fifty-eight years in our beloved Conference, there has been tribulation, controversy, slow and meager growth in numbers, and even sudden defection of once-stalwart confessors of the truth. Some of these were pastors who, out-of-the-blue, reversed themselves in doctrine and practice and left our fellowship, in some cases joining the very heterodox church bodies which for many years they had marked as such on the basis of sola Scriptura and, in obedience to its clear injunctions, had avoided (Romans 16:17). Some took entire congregations with them; some split their congregation in the process, leaving only remnants of their former membership to carry on; and some, in spite of their often insidious efforts, gained no adherents among their people. By the grace of God, sheep who stood on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20) did not go after them, recognizing their voice to be the voice of “a stranger” (John 10:4-5) who was speaking “divers and strange doctrines” (Hebrews 13:9) in cunningly devised “good words and fair speeches” (Romans 16:18) intent on deceiving them.
Imagine, if you can, the cries of disbelief and dismay, the tears of sadness and anguish of heart, the just anger and resentment at having been betrayed, had Martin Luther in his later years recanted all his writings, sought the counsel and favor of the Pope, taken a colloquy in the Church of Rome, and returned to the spiritual “Babylon” from whence he had been so mercifully delivered many years before! His courageous stand before the Diet at Worms would have been for nothing; and Solomon’s words in Proverbs 26:11 would well apply to him: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.” Why the sudden shift in position on the part of these former brethren? It was because they did not “stand fast and hold the traditions which [they had] been taught.” (II Thessalonians 2:15). Instead, as victims of their own pride, they ventured off the sure foundation of sola Scriptura, lost their spiritual footing, stumbled, fell, and ended up in the quicksand of error and ignorance!
Not only pastors, however, but also many laymen over the years became victims of spiritual ignorance after having been carefully instructed in the precious doctrines of Holy Writ (II Thessalonians 2:15; I John 2:24; II Timothy 4:2; etc.), after having understood and apprehended them (II Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 1:18; 5:17; Colossians 1:9; 2:2; II Timothy 2:7; I John 5:20; Romans 6:17; Hebrews 10:26); and after having confessed them before men at the time of their Confirmation (Matthew 10:32; Luke 12:8; Romans 10:9; II Timothy 1:8). Many, either ignoring or directly opposing the doctrine which they had learned, and contrary to the words of Holy Scripture, “went back and walked no more with [their Savior]” (John 6:66) on the sure pathways of His Word (John 8:31-32). They sinfully separated themselves from true brethren and forsook the fellowship of orthodoxy in which, by God’s grace, they had been established.
What happened? How could such apostasy have occurred? Some literally starved their faith by refusing to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of [their] Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18) and became so weak that they lost what they once had learned and regressed in their knowledge of God’s Word to the point that, like “babes” requiring a milk diet, they practically needed to start “from scratch” in Christian education (Cf. Hebrews 5:12-14; also Ephesians 4:14). For such, Bible Class on Sunday morning was an “option” that they refused to exercise; so were instructional classes during the week. Regular Bible study in the family circle was non-existent. The children’s attendance at Sunday School was sporadic, their memory work neglected, and their Confirmation Class assignments chronically unprepared. They, like so many, suffered from a kind of “spiritual anorexia” — imagining themselves to be “fat,” refusing to take in nourishment, and finally being unable to digest either “milk” or “strong meat” (Hebrews 5:12).
Others were “led away with the error of the wicked” (II Peter 3:17), contrary to better knowledge following after the “good words and fair speeches” of a false prophet (Romans 16:18) who told them what they wanted to hear (II Timothy 4:3). And still others, following the inclinations of the flesh, in their self-imposed ignorance and instability wrested the Scriptures to their own destruction (II Peter 3:16) by twisting them to suit their own agendas and finally, in some instances, convinced themselves in an erring conscience that they were right. — Where are they today? Some wandered into heterodox Lutheran church bodies, some joined sectarian churches, some don’t attend church anymore anywhere, and some became outright heathen and have no spiritual life at all! They “receive[d] the grace of God in vain” (II Corinthians 6:1) and even “believed in vain” (I Corinthians 15:2) by not keeping in memory the pure Word of God that had been preached to them.
In spite of such tragic losses, however, “the Lord hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad!” (Psalm 126:3). He has graciously preserved to us and our children His precious Word in its truth and purity and has strengthened us through that Word to ever greater steadfastness in building upon its sure foundation. Let us be wary, however, lest Satan lift us up with pride to despise the Word as our only authority and cause us to fall! Rather, let each of us, pastor and layman alike, “hold fast the form of sound words” (II Timothy 1:13), growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who assures us: “If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). For then and only then will we be enabled by the Holy Spirit through that very Word to declare with Luther: “Here, on God’s pure Word, I stand! By His abiding grace, I cannot do otherwise! God help me, as He has promised! Amen!” Then and only then will we be able to declare with boldness, confidence, and shamelessness with our orthodox fathers in the Formula of Concord (1580):
We have no intention of yielding aught of the eternal, immutable truth of God for the sake of temporal peace, tranquility, and unity (which, moreover, is not in our power to do). Nor would such peace and unity, since it is devised against the truth and for its suppression, have any permanency. Still less are we inclined to adorn and conceal a corruption of the pure doctrine and manifest, condemned errors. But we entertain heartfelt pleasure and love for, and are on our part sincerely inclined and anxious to advance, that unity according to our utmost power, by which His glory remains to God uninjured, nothing of the divine truth of the Holy Gospel is surrendered, no room is given to the least error, poor sinners are brought to true, genuine repentance, raised up by faith, confirmed in new obedience, and thus justified and eternally saved alone through the sole merit of Christ. (Triglotta, Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration XI, p. 1095.)
To that blessed end we pray with the hymnwriter:
Lord, keep us in Thy Word, we pray!
The guile and rage of Satan stay!
E’er let us in its power confide,
that we may seek no other guide!
(TLH 292, adapted)
—D. T. M.