Teach and Train: Sola Scriptura
Teach and Train: Sola Scriptura by Rev. L. John Gable
October 9, 2016
What is it the role of Scripture in your faith walk, in your rule of life, in your desire for spiritual growth? That is the question I would like for us to explore this morning as it is one of the questions which laid the foundation for the Protestant Reformation. Are you aware that we are 499 years out from Martin Luther’s famous nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany? In October of next year we will spend more time and go much deeper into the meaning and the impact of the Reformation as we celebrate the 500th anniversary, but for the next several weeks, beginning today, we are going to look at three foundational principles of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Sola Fide (Faith alone) and the Priesthood of all believers. Why are these three so important for us to consider? Because I believe they are as essential to our understanding of the faith today as they were in the 16th century. In nearly every Inquirers’ class we teach, as I talk about the Reformation to help explain the way we Presbyterian’s understand and practice our faith, invariably a light will go on for one of our participants. “Oh, I get it”, they’ll say, and the Protestant Reformation comes to life once again. God is still doing the work of transformation and reformation.
So here is the first question I want us to look at. What is the role of Scripture in your faith walk, in your rule of life, in your desire for spiritual growth?
In II Timothy we read, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16) Surveys today, one I recently read coming out of Indiana University, find that the vast majority of Americans believe and affirm that statement. 77% of all surveyed believe the Bible is either the “literal Word of God” or the “inspired Word of God.” That is remarkable, over ¾ of people believe that God is speaking directly through Scripture. Yet what is equally remarkable to me is that most of those people said that they haven’t read the Bible in at least a year. The vast majority of people respect the Bible, but only about 10% are actually using it daily. Doesn’t that strike you as being a bit strange, that the God who created the heavens and the earth, who called all things in to being, who sent His one and only Son for our salvation, all of which the Bible claims to be true, that this God has spoken and is speaking, yet we collectively aren’t bothering to listen? It has often been said that the Bible is the most revered yet least read book in history.
So lest you think I am talking about “them”, whoever “they” might be, I am not. I am talking to us, to you and to myself, when I ask, “What role does Scripture play in your faith walk, in your rule of life, in your desire for spiritual growth?” Let me say this as clearly and plainly as I possibly can: the number one catalyst for spiritual growth, far outweighing any other program or practice, is an engagement with Scripture. If you desire to grow in your faith the number one means to do so is simply to pick up your Bible and read it. Church father Jerome rightly said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” If you want to know what God is like look at Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus is like look to the Scriptures. There is no other way to grow in faith or in Christ-likeness than to go deep into your reading and understanding of the Bible, hence “sola Scriptura”, Scripture alone.
In our lessons this morning the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy that Scripture is “inspired by God”, that is, it is “God breathed.” Now we can discuss and argue and debate how that is so, but we can never prove it to anyone save ourselves; the truth of Scripture must be experienced if it is to be believed, for us individually and collectively in the Church. We can try to argue for its authority; but we are better off to experience it for ourselves. So, open the pages of Scripture and breathe deeply; you are breathing in the breath of God, you are “inspiring” the Word of God. Furthermore, not only do we believe that the original writers of Scripture were inspired when they wrote, but we also believe that we are inspired by God as we, prayerfully and faithfully, read and apply these truths to our lives. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet again, let me very clear on this. The only way we can breathe in the Word of God is to actually crack open this book and read it. God is still speaking, so we need to be listening, and when we do something of a reformation begins to take place within us.
In these two passages we read this morning written by the Apostle Paul to his son in the faith, his protégé, Timothy, we are given very clear guidance as to the value and importance of Scripture in our spiritual lives and growth.
We read in II Timothy 3:14, Paul’s encouragement to Timothy “to continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, for these teachings are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” Friends, we need to hear, and heed, those same words of encouragement for ourselves.
He goes on to say that the Scriptures are “useful for teaching, reproof (or push back against errant thinking), correction (actually telling us where we have gone wrong) and training in righteousness” (3:16). The Bible isn’t just an answer book, it is a training manual for those who want to follow Jesus and live in righteousness; to what end? “That we may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (3:17). In short, so that we can be the kind of people God can use in the work of His Kingdom. The Bible becomes the guide and resource which teaches us the way of holiness and right relationships with God and others. It instructs us in the way of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, trusting in His saving grace alone. No other writings can make this claim. There is no other; it is “sola Scriptura”.
Looking again at I Timothy 4, Paul instructs his successor in pastoral ministry to “be faithful in putting these instructions before the people” (4:6). This is the primary calling of the pastoral office, the responsibility given to Oscar and me among you. Of course there are many tasks we are asked and required to do as your pastors, but this one is primary. The Bible is the source of our authority to preach and teach, so you must call us out if ever our teaching and preaching is not firmly grounded in Scripture. This Body will grow strong and deep in faith only as long as it, and those who preach and teach here, are nourished on the Word of God and the sound teaching it gives us. There is no other way; sola Scriptura.
Paul goes on to say, “Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales”(4:7). There are plenty of those going around today, aren’t there, and new thoughts and theories pop up all the time. So how do we know which of those are true and which are not? We turn to the teachings of Scripture to see if they line up, if they do, we explore them; if they don’t, we discard and ignore them. So much of contemporary teaching about spirituality sounds so good, but upon further reflection it simply rings hollow. I recently heard about a speaker who has written a book on spirituality who bases his argument on the premise that the Biblical truths and principles are too good and valuable only to be held and practiced by those who believe in God. Of course he is right. Who could argue that the world would not be a better place if we all practiced love and forgiveness and justice, but then it struck me as being rather funny. Where does he think those principles and values come from? Of course they come from God so we can’t really take God out of the equation. We can’t live lives of holiness without the Holy One to guide, direct and empower us. So, if we want to learn how to love, to give, to forgive, to practice mercy and justice, to live, even to die, we need to use Scripture as the touchstone to determine the truth and worthiness of all those “profane myths and old wives’ tales” that continue to come our way.
Paul goes on to speak of using Scripture to develop our spiritual muscles, just as we use weights and exercises to develop our physical muscles. “Train yourself in godliness; for while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come”(4:7-8). You won’t read that on any flyer promoting the opening of a new fitness center.
Further, he writes, “give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhorting, to teaching” (4:13). Private devotional reading is essential to our spiritual growth, like having a good nutritious diet; but public reading in worship is also essential. Christianity is essentially a community affair; we weren’t intended to do this life of faith alone. When I read Scripture alone I find that I always agree with myself and I only glean my own insights; however, when I read Scripture with others, in a Bible study or a small group, I find that my way of reading is not the only way, and at times not even the correct way. I need you to help me grow in my walk with God and my understanding of His Word.
“Put these things in to practice” (4:15) writes Paul. Our engagement with Scripture must not become merely a rote practice or an intellectual exercise. Remember, our goal is not to know more about God, but to know God more and more deeply. The desired end of our study and engagement is changed and reformed lives, more closely formed into the likeness of Jesus; that we will live and think and act more like Jesus because we will know more and more about how Jesus lived and thought and acted. And how can we come to know that? Only through our study of Scripture; sola Scriptura; Scripture alone. And as that happens something of a transformation, a reformation begins to take place in us.
Let me close with a story told by the late Tom Gillespie, Presbyterian pastor and President of Princeton Theological Seminary. He tells of a young seminarian named Scotty who sometime in the early 1960’s developed a deep friendship with a Romanian Orthodox priest while both were doing graduate work in Germany. These two young men, both being expatriates, became very close friends even though they came from two different parts of the world and two very different cultures. One day the young Romanian said to the young American, “You know the Bible in a way that I don’t know the Bible. Would you teach it to me?” So Scotty, with his English translation, began to walk through the Scriptures as his new friend read from his Romanian translation. As they spoke Scotty would reach back as best he could to remember all he had learned in seminary in those introductory Old and New Testament courses, and his new friend consumed it and continued to ask for more. Eventually, Scotty said, “If you really want to be serious about the Bible you’d do best to learn the original languages”, and to his amazement his friend decided to do just that. And he did. He learned Hebrew, and then Greek, and began to read the Bible in the original languages. Finally it came time for both young men to return home. Scotty said, “I know you’ve really gotten in to this, so you need to take some commentaries home with you so you can continue your studies.” His Romanian friend said, “I’ve got no money for that” and Scotty said, “I have an aunt who has”. So he wired her and explained the situation. She wired back and said, “Buy him whatever he needs and send me the bill.” That was the greatest investment that woman ever made because that Romanian priest went back home armed with a headful of theological and historical understanding, and a heart full of love for Christ and the Scriptures.
Now because he was a Christian, and worse a priest, he was not allowed to teach at the university under the oppression regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, but he was allowed to be a teaching assistant and offer courses there. The courses he offered were soon oversubscribed. He would offer them under such titles as “Hebrew Social Criticism in the Sixth Century BC”, which gave him the opportunity to teach about the Old Testament prophets, and the government never caught on. Two generations of students went through that university and received some Biblical literacy they never would have gained otherwise. Fast forward twenty years or more, to December 17, 1989. That night, this professor/priest walked into his church, aptly named the Church of the Martyrs, offered his prayers, lit a candle, then walked out onto the streets of the capital city. He was followed by others who had also lit their candles. That night they walked from church to church and the crowd swelled. They finally made their way to the great piazza in front of Romanian leader’s palace. 100,000 Romanians carrying their candles, bearing witness that Ceausescu is not God, that the state is not God, that Marx is not God, that God is God; a message they learned from the Scriptures. Ceausescu sent his army and secret police to disperse the crowd with orders to shoot if they did not obey. There stood the soldiers with their AK 47s as the people stood with their candles. The soldiers refused to fire when ordered to do so and that night Ceausescu’s government fell. Candles shining the light of Christ brought down a tyrannical regime.
The Church lives by hearing the Word of God. Beginning in January we will lay out a daily, year-long read through the Bible, but you don’t need to wait for us. Start today. God is still doing the work of reformation and transformation in our lives and in our world. God is still speaking, so we need to listen…to His Word…spoken plainly and clearly. The reformation is alive and well through our engagement with the Word of God, through Scripture alone; sola Scriptura.