As we look forward to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, this sermon is about the classic Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, “scripture alone”—which means that the Bible is the ultimate authority guiding our Christian faith and practice. Of course, in our culture today, the Bible’s authority is under constant attack. It’s even under attack in the church, including the United Methodist Church!
With that mind, I pray that these next two sermons on Sola Scriptura will give you confidence in God’s Word. We can trust it! Every word of it! We can build our lives on it!
Sermon Text: 2 Timothy 3:14-17
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To make sense of what I’m about to say, let me define a term with which most of us Protestants will be unfamiliar: purgatory. This is the Roman Catholic doctrine that says that when a Christian dies, they will likely have to be cleansed of their sins—or punished for their sins—prior to going to heaven. How long this period of cleansing or punishment lasts, well, depends on how sinful a person was.
And before you ask, no, the doctrine of purgatory is not found in scripture.
To make matters worse, church officials back in the 16th century were going around and telling mostly poor people that if they were willing to pay enough money—money which was used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—the church had the power to take time off their sentence in purgatory. Or even to take time off the sentences of their loved ones who were suffering in purgatory. And who wouldn’t want that for their loved ones?
Many thoughtful Christians believed that this church practice was corrupt, exploitative, greedy, and unbiblical. One of these critics was Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and theology professor in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther put his objections in writing, by posting his famous Ninety-five Theses on the door of All Saints Church 500 years ago this October 31st. And this bold action launched the Protestant Reformation.
There were a whole host of doctrines and practices that had crept into the medieval church that Luther also objected to—the infallibility of the pope; that saving grace came through priests alone when they administered the sacraments; that your salvation depends in part on your own good works; praying to Mary and the saints. And Luther objected to these doctrines and practices on the basis, first, of what the Bible says. His point was that everything we believe as Christians, everything we put into practice, must ultimately be based on what God tells us in his Word, the Bible. And it can’t contradict that!
Luther made this point emphatically when he appeared before a church tribunal in 1521. The church prosecutor asked him, “Will you recant?” Luther said the following, which ought to put a lump in the throat of any Protestant:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason [by which Luther means “reasoning from scripture”]…, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.
That is part of our heritage. We are here today as Methodists in part because of the principles that Luther stood for. I’ve talked for two sermons about one of these principles, or doctrines: justification by faith alone.
But our belief in this doctrine isn’t based on anything Luther said or did. It’s based on what the Bible, God’s Word, clearly teaches. And this, in many ways, is the most important principle to emerge from the Reformation: We must base our Christian faith and practice on what God has revealed in his written Word, the Bible, alone. Everyone else—including popes—and everything else—including church councils—make mistakes; they are imperfect; they are fallible. The Bible, by contrast, doesn’t make mistakes; it’s perfect; it’s infallible—as orthodox Christianity has always taught.
In a sermon, John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, said that today’s scripture from 2 Timothy implies that the Bible is “infallibly true.” Indeed, in a journal entry dated July 24, 1776, Wesley was complaining about a writer who said that not all of the Bible was inspired by God, and some of its writers made mistakes. Wesley said, “Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth.”
For this reason, Wesley wrote the following in his preface to a book of his sermons:
I want to know one thing: the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be “homo unius libri.”
Which means “a man of one book.” Wesley aspired to be a man of one book—the Bible. Not that he didn’t read plenty of other books—he was an Oxford don, for heaven’s sake. But he built his life on God’s Word, the Bible. And he wanted us Methodists to do so as well.
And even as I say this, perhaps you’re thinking of a dozen objections to believing that the Bible is “infallibly true,” as Wesley said. Especially if you’ve read the world’s most popular United Methodist pastor, Adam Hamilton, on the subject. In fact, in a recent book called Making Sense of the Bible, Hamilton offers a couple of deeply troubling, unbiblical, and unorthodox ideas about the Bible. I’ve shared these criticisms with him over Twitter, and he said he’s going to try to respond next week. I hope he does!
The first thing he says is that we can divide all of scripture into three “buckets”: Into bucket Number One, he says, you can put most of the Bible: It reflects God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings. Other scripture belongs in Bucket Number Two: It expressed God’s will in a particular time, but is no longer binding. The ceremonial aspects of the Law of Moses, for example—including Jewish dietary law, circumcision, purity laws—which the New Testament tells us are no longer binding on Christians; these would fit in Bucket Number Two.
So far so good. The problem is with Hamilton’s Bucket Number Three: There is scripture, he says, that “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.” In other words, the Bible got it wrong. For Hamilton, this is a large bucket—because it includes, as far as I can tell, every instance of God acting violently in the Old Testament—either directly, through the Flood, through the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—or indirectly through Joshua and the Israelites as they conquered the land of Canaan.
Throughout the book, Hamilton argues that we can’t reconcile these depictions of God’s violence with the “forgiveness and mercy” demonstrated by Jesus Christ.
In doing so, however, he underestimates the problem of sin—the way it makes us all “enemies” of God, according to Romans 5:10, who deserve God’s wrath. Romans 1:18. When God acts with violence in the Bible he does so in righteous judgment against human sin and evil. The Bible says that we all have sinned, and we all deserve God’s judgment; we all deserve death; we all deserve hell. The psalmist says, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” The answer is, “No one,” and this is one reason that the Bible shows us many instances of God’s judgment. This is the starting point of the gospel! If we don’t understand this, then we don’t understand why God would send Jesus into the world in the first place!
We are all sinners!
Besides, you know what’s more violent than anything that God or Israel is shown doing in the Old Testament? An eternity separated from God, in hell; and most of what we know about hell—by far—comes from the direct teaching of Jesus himself! Would Adam Hamilton put some of the red-letter words of Jesus into Bucket Number Three? God forbid! But by his own logic, how could he not?
Or what about Revelation 19? The sword-wielding rider on the white horse, whose robe is dipped in the blood of his enemies, who avenges evil, is Jesus himself. Is this passage, along with so many other passages of Revelation, in Bucket Number Three? I hope not!
The good news of the gospel is that God loved us too much to leave us in our sins; to leave us in this condition in which we’re bound for hell; to leave us in this place without hope. No, he sent his Son Jesus to atone for our sins on the cross so that, through faith in him, we can be saved!
If the Bible’s depiction of God’s violent judgment of sin and evil scares us, that’s good! Because it ought to send us to the cross of his Son Jesus, where we find love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace!
Brothers and sisters, there can be no Bucket Number Three. Because Paul tells us that “all Scripture is breathed out by God,” and all of it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” All means all. I’m going to say more about what it means that scripture is “God-breathed” in next week’s sermon, and I’m going to deal with other objections, but for now, suffice it to say—as no less a Bible scholar than N.T. Wright, a retired bishop in the Church of England, has said—we can be confident that we have exactly the Bible that God wants us to have—every word of it.
Martin Scorsese is one of the world’s great filmmakers. He made Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and GoodFellas, among many other films. Last year he released a movie called Silence, about Catholic missionaries who go to Japan in the 18th century. Scorsese is a Catholic. The movie got rave reviews from theologically conservative, evangelical Christian publications like Christianity Today and websites like The Gospel Coalition. The movie takes Christian faith seriously, and in its own way, from what I’ve read, affirms the truth of it. If you’ve seen Raging Bull, you may recall that it ends with a lengthy quotation from John chapter 9 and the healing of the man born blind. Deeply moving.
I haven’t seen Silence yet—but I ordered the DVD last week from Amazon. But from what I’ve read, it’s tough stuff: It depicts some of these missionaries and the members of their church being martyred by the Japanese.
But I bring it up because of the title: Silence. In the movie, the Japanese are doing all these terrible things to Christian martyrs, and one of the missionaries wants to know why God remains silent. Why won’t God say something—answer his questions? Tell these believers what to do? How to handle this situation? Why does God remain silent in the face of so much suffering?
As one evangelical reviewer pointed out, however, this might be one difference between a Catholic movie and a Protestant movie: Why on earth would we imagine that God is silent? In this book [hold up Bible], we have more than 750,000 words that have been “breathed out for us” by God! This is the primary means by which God speaks to us. It’s not like any other book, either: It’s not that God gave us these words in the past—for people living a long time ago in very different circumstances—it’s that he continues to speak to us today, through these words—through his Word. God himself, through the Holy Spirit, meets us in these pages—Jesus Christ meets us in these pages—and he shows us how these words relate to everything we’re going through today. Notice I said “today.” Don’t say to yourself, “I’ve already read the Bible. I know what it says.” No, you need the Bible today, and tomorrow, and the day after—even if you’ve read it dozens of times!
Dwight Moody, a famous nineteenth century evangelist, put it like this: “A man stood up in one of our meetings and said he hoped for enough out of the series of meetings to last him all his life. I told him he might as well try to eat enough breakfast at one time to last him a lifetime.” Even if we ate a large of breakfast so that we’re stuffed, by the next morning at least, we’ll need to eat another breakfast. God’s Word is like that! You can’t get enough of it!
In commenting on today’s scripture, theologian Tom Wright put it like this:
[When Paul says that scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”] it means, clearly, that as we read scripture it will from time to time inform us in no uncertain terms that something we’ve been doing is out of line with God’s will. Sometimes this will lie plainly on the surface of the text; other times, as we read a passage, we will begin to hear the voice of God gently, or perhaps not so gently, telling us that this story applies to this area of our lives, or perhaps that one. When that happens—as it may often do for those who read the Bible prayerfully—we do well to pay attention.
God has a personal word that he wants to speak to you about specific challenges that you’re facing in your life: He wants to talk to you about your financial fears and struggles. He wants to talk to you about that problem your having in your marriage, or that problem with your kids. He wants to talk to you about that drinking problem that you keep telling yourself isn’t really a problem. He wants to steer you away from that extramarital affair that you’re coming dangerously close to having. He wants to talk to you about your pride, your anger, your fears. He wants to reassure you that he’ll take care of you if you’ll trust in him and lean not on your own understanding. He wants to tell you how much he loves you, even when you have a hard time loving yourself.
Are you listening, Christian? Are we listening, Hampton Methodist Church? If your Bible remains closed when we’re not in church, the answer has to be “no.”
As one writer said recently, “Don’t say God is silent when your Bible is closed.”
1. Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 45.
2. John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition. Accessed 16 September 2017.
3. John Wesley, The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, Vol. 4 (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1922), 83.
4. John Wesley, John Wesley, ed. Albert Outler (New York: Oxford University, 1964), 89.
5. Psalm 130:3 ESV
6. N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 121-2.