Sola Scriptura – Scripture is the Only and Final Authority
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was a watershed moment for biblical Christianity. As Christians we owe much to men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, William Tyndale, John Knox, and John Calvin. It was men like these who looked to the Scriptures instead of to Rome, and as they did, they rediscovered the old, old story: that mankind can only be justified through faith alone (Sola Fide), by God’s grace alone (Sola Gratia), in Christ alone (Solus Christus), to the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria). It was that little word alone that sets Protestants apart from Papists and sets biblical Christianity apart from any number of manmade religions that only damn instead of redeem. But what started this movement? What gave these men such conviction in their dangerous and controversial stand against Rome? It was their conviction of the exclusivity of Scripture’s authority (Sola Scriptura).
This is where any theological discussion must begin. If two parties cannot agree on the doctrine of Scripture’s sole authority over every aspect of our lives, then there can be no discussion on anything else. This doctrine is the headwater of the Protestant Reformation and it is the foot from which true Christianity springs. The Bible is full of passages that proclaim or assume Scripture’s authority. But to zero in on this foundational discussion, I present three crucial passages to ground our understanding of Scripture’s authority to govern every aspect of our lives.
The Scope of Scripture’s Authority (Matthew 4:1-11)
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of god.’” Then the devil took Him into the holy city; and he had Him stand 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 give his angels charge concerning you’; and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, 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 things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘you shall worship the lord your god, and serve him only.’” Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.”
This text could easily be mined out as a sermon all to itself (and usually is) but I just want us to make a few observations as we begin the discussion of Scripture’s authority.
Subjective circumstances are no excuse for disobedience (vv. 1-4) – The first temptation is placed within the context of Jesus’ 40 day fast. He is now hungry and, from a human perspective, vulnerable. The tempter (ὁ πειράζων – one who makes trial of someone/thing) comes demanding proof of Jesus’ divine Sonship. If Jesus is truly the Son of God, then He should prove it by creating sustenance for Himself. In other words, prove that you are God’s Son by demonstrating your authority. This temptation is not unlike the first temptation in the garden: You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat of it you too will become like God, knowing good and evil. But Jesus’ response is stunning.
As He quotes Deut. 8:3, Jesus answers by submitting to Scripture. Deut. 8 recounts Moses as he reminds the second generation of Israel of God’s provision for them all throughout their wilderness wonderings. All of God’s good provision was for the purpose of showing them that they cannot live (eternally) by bread alone, but they must depend on and obey every single word that comes from the mouth of Yhwh. The irony here is that if Jesus failed to rely upon God the Father by taking His own wellbeing into His own hands, He would actually disprove His divinity. He would be no better than the grumbling generation of Israelites. Rather than looking no further than His next meal, Jesus places His eyes upon the promises of God and submits to God’s authority according to God’s Word. Being hungry is no excuse for flagrant disobedience.
Subjective interpretations seek to bend the unbendable (vv. 5-7) – The second temptation remains in the realm of the subjective, but the devil (note the transition: ὁ διάβολος/the adversary) changes tactics. He too can quote from Scripture and seeks to make Jesus prove His Sonship by placing Himself in danger. If Psalm 91 is indeed accurate and authoritative, then what has Jesus to fear? Won’t God protect Jesus until the appointed time of His sacrificial death?
Jesus’ response again points to Scripture, but He does so in such a way that will not allow any subjective interpretation. Again, from Deuteronomy (6:16) Jesus remarks that it is sin to test Yhwh our God. The context of Deut. 6:16 is Moses’ reminder to Israel of their testing of God at the waters of Massah (Ex. 17:7). Only a few days after Yhwh proved His power, protection, and provision at the Red Sea, these unbelieving and stiff-necked people doubt that He will prove faithful. For Jesus to test the Father in this manner is nothing short of Israel’s sin back in Ex. 17.
Objective disobedience is sedition (vv. 8-11) – Satan now pulls all the stops. He is no longer interested in getting Jesus to prove who He is. Here he plainly asks Jesus to defect. By offering Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, he is offering Jesus what is rightfully Jesus’ already. But this offer skips the necessary suffering that Jesus will endure only a few short years from this point. Will Jesus defect and side with the adversary? Will Jesus fail to persevere?
Jesus’ answer is final and again submits to the authority of Scripture. By quoting several places in Deuteronomy together (6:13; 10:20) Jesus makes it clear that Yhwh alone is to be worshiped. And with that, Jesus takes command of the situation and dismisses Satan.
A few observations: First, these encounters prove that there is never an acceptable excuse to disobey Scripture. Most of us would agree that to bow to Satan is a blatant and obvious violation of the first commandment, but what about the first temptation? Jesus reveals here that even subjective circumstances are no excuse not to trust what God has already said.
Second, Jesus submits to Scripture. Dwell on that for a moment. Jesus – God of very God, begotten and not created – submitted to the written Word of God. As the second person of the Godhead, the Scriptures reveal Jesus’ character and will just as much as it does the Father’s and the Holy Spirit’s. For Jesus to rebel against Scripture would be to rebel against His very nature. Such a thing is impossible. But at the same time, if Scripture is authoritative to the point where God the Son submits Himself to it, then we must assume that its authority is even greater over us.
Scripture’s Authority vs. Tradition (Matthew 5:21-48)
““You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘you shall not commit murder and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. “If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. “Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery;
but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. “And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. “And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell.
“And it was said, ‘whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce;
but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘you shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the lord.’
“But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. “Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ “But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. “And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. “And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two. “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’
“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? “And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This text would take several weeks to fully unpack. But again, we can make some observations that will advance our cause.
Tradition has no authority in itself – We must note the difference between you have heard vs. it is written. The first reflects oral tradition that may or may not be based upon Scripture while the second refers to Scripture itself. This is a very important distinction as we observe this passage. Jesus is NOT rebuking, correcting, or altering what is written. Rather, He is rebuking and correcting tradition that was supposedly built upon Scripture.
Tradition in of itself carries zero weight. Arguing what has been believed, taught, and understood is only relevant if these things reflect what Scripture actually teaches. Jesus’ entire point in this passage is to show that what the Scribes and Pharisees have been teaching does not, by any means, reflect the actual content or intention of Scripture.
Scripture never addresses the hands without also addressing the heart – Many people go astray here by thinking that the poor Scribes and Pharisees didn’t realize that God’s Word targets the heart and intentions of man as well as the deeds that he performs. It is wrong to think that Jesus here, for the first time, reveals that Scripture actually targets the heart as well as the hands. This is not brand-new information. This is Jesus’ exposition of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy chapters 12-26 outline the specific instructions for Israel’s daily living once they enter the land. Moses uses the 10 Commandments as an outline making these chapters an explanation of the practical implications of the 10 Commandments.
The 10 Commandments reflect the two greatest commandments; to love Yhwh our God and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:35-40). Commandments 1-4 reflect this love of Yhwh while commandments 6-10 reflect the love of neighbor. The linchpin linking the two sides being the 5th commandment, to honor father and mother (representatives of God’s authority upon the earth). If you can’t honor father and mother, then you won’t honor God and you certainly won’t love your neighbor. The flow of this passage mirrors with perfect precision Deuteronomy 19:1-26:19, Commandments 6-10. And guess what? The heart has always been at the center of these commands.
Only Satan and his minions use Scripture as a license for sin – Most of these rebukes are against those that ignorantly limit the commands of God to simply external deeds. Those who thought that murder was limited to the physical taking of life clearly reveal a lack of exposure or understanding of Moses. If perjury (Deut. 19:15-21) and neglect (Deut. 21:15-17; 22:1-4) constitutes murder, then we’re obviously dealing with a heart issue. But some of these rebukes are against those that twist the Scriptures in such a way so as to give license for sin.
Jesus’ rebuke against divorce (vv. 31-32), vows (vv. 33-37), vengeance (vv. 38-42), and love of neighbor (vv. 43-47) all stem from a willful twisting of God’s clearly articulated Word for personal gain. Tradition emphasized the legality of the certificate rather than the reasons for divorce. Tradition provided a loophole for vows that could be broken without blaspheming. Tradition purposefully confused vengeance with justice. And tradition sought to provide support for the hatred of others. This is the work of the devil, the tempter, and the adversary.
A few observations: First, Jesus does not in any way undermine, correct, or alter previous Scripture. In fact, He affirms and strengthens all that Moses has already said by placing His own name next to Moses’. Each statement of correction begins with but I tell you (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν). This is not suggesting that Jesus is offering a brand-new take on old and worn out texts. He’s affirming, as God incarnate, what Moses recorded; words that Jesus has already stated.
Second, there needs to be a distinction between tradition and Scripture. Tradition is never, never, NEVER a sufficient authority by itself. While it is comforting to establish theology and doctrine that has been believed and articulated throughout church history, it is only convincing if the same theology and doctrine are actually taught in Scripture. It matters very little what our friend, favorite preacher, or ancient church father has said. If it runs contrary to Scripture, the discussion is over.
Scripture’s Authority vs. Personal Experience (2 Peter 1:16-21)
“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased” — and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
This final passage under examination should be preached from every pulpit throughout the globe. What passes for Christianity in our day is utterly devoid of doctrinal truth, consisting almost exclusively of subjective feelings and emotions. People automatically equate worship with emotion and conversion with experience while at the same time could not defend nor articulate the significance of the trinity. This is a necessary passage, but we need to gain a little context first.
Scripture is given to produce holiness (vv. 1-15) – Peter beings his second epistle by reminding his audience that God has given everything needed for both life (eternal life) and godliness (obedience in the present age) through knowledge of Christ (v. 3). Through this knowledge, God grants His precious promises for the purpose of making those who trust those promises into those with a divine nature opposed to their natural sinful nature (v. 4). It is for that reason (the reason of having a divine nature) that diligence must be applied to faith (the working obedience based on trust). This diligence applied is a chain that begins with moral excellence and is then linked to knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and then concludes with love (vv. 5-7). If these qualities increase, then the readers are not useless. Therefore, be diligent to pursue them (vv. 8-11). Peter then states that he stands ready to remind the readers of these things, even though they already know them, until he dies (vv. 12-15).
In other words, Scripture is the key. The knowledge of God (ἐπίγνωσις – surpassing intellectual knowledge to become conviction) is impossible without the Scriptures. Conversion assumes that the Scriptures where taught and then believed as the result of God-given regeneration. Sanctification, or growing in holiness, also assumes a knowledge of Scripture. For it is through the Word of God that the child of God knows how to please God. Ignorance of Scripture leaves believers as useless members (v. 8).
Peter’s audience knows these things already, but because he loves them, he writes to them again to encourage their growth and increasing usefulness (v. 12).
Scripture is superior to personal experiences (vv. 16-19) – That context is necessary to set up the one-two punch that’s coming. Peter maintains that all the doctrine that he has personally taught did not come from him. He is simply a messenger, a witness of events, and a proclaimer of truth. What sort of events did Peter witness? In vv. 16-18 he describes Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt. 17) when Christ’s humanity was peeled back for a moment in time and His unveiled glory shown. I don’t care what kind of a one-upper you are, no one can top that story. And yet Peter’s confidence is not at all in this amazing experience.
In v. 19 he encourages his audience by telling them that they have the prophetic word made more sure (βεβαιότερον) or the word that is firm/established/unmoving. They can have confidence in their faith and in Peter’s instruction, not because of some experience that they have endured, but because of the Scriptures that are even more sure. Experiences fade, their lightning impact dwindling over time. They are like the grass that fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever (Is. 40:8; 1 Pet. 1:24-25). Experiences, like tradition, have zero authority by itself. They are either consistent with Scripture or they contradict Scripture, but Scripture is the final authority.
Scripture’s authority comes from its origin (vv. 20-21) – In these last two verses Peter explains why Scripture is the ultimate authority. When he states that no Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation (v. 20) he is speaking of origin rather than understanding. The term rendered interpretation (ἐπιλύσεως) is better understood as loosing/utterance/what has come forth from him. The point is that Scripture is not begotten from man. Rather, it is begotten by God.
In the next verse we read that Scripture is not the product (or carried out by - φέρω) of human will or desire but men were moved (or carried out by - φέρω) by the Holy Spirit and thus spoke from God. Scripture was penned by men, but its origin is from God. This is the crowning argument for Scripture’s authority: Scripture is God’s own testimony.
Matthew 4:1-11: The King of kings and Lord of lords lived his entire earthly life in submission to Scripture’s authority. Scripture reveals the person, purpose, and pleasure of God in His fullness and thus jointly reflects the person, purpose, and pleasure of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Jesus submitted to Scripture not only because He was submitting to the Father, but also because the Father’s will is one and the same as His own.
Matthew 5:21-48: Scripture always trumps tradition. It matters not how long a wrong view has been held or how many people hold it. Nearly every doctrinal conviction I hold is said to be a “minority position” and yet they are plainly taught in Scripture. The authority and quality of Scripture is never the issue. Rather, men who twist Scripture to support their wrong-headed notions create problems where there were none.
2 Peter 1:16-21: Warm and fuzzy feelings are a poor substitute for the objective revelation of Almighty God. The command to worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24) does not combine emotion with fact but combines integrity and genuine belief with fact. If facts do not care about your feelings, then surely Scripture will never submit to them. Our feelings must subject themselves to Scripture’s authority.
This is the headwaters of any and every meaningful discussion that the Christian will ever have. When we evangelize the lost, we appeal to the authority of Scripture alone. When we exhort the saints to obey, we appeal to the authority of Scripture alone. When we correct bothersome brothers and sinning sisters, we appeal to the authority of Scripture alone. When we correct errant thinking and confront false doctrine, we appeal to the authority of Scripture alone. If there cannot first be an agreement that Scripture is the only and final authority, the discussion dies before it begins. Those who refuse to bow to God’s written Word are those who refuse to bow to God. As such they reveal themselves to be servants of Satan rather than slaves of Christ. It is, after all, His Word. Soli Deo Gloria!