This is post #1 of 6 in a brief series on the doctrine of Scripture called “Scripture Alone.” I’m convinced that Christians today need to constantly reaffirm our convictions about God’s Word in order to avoid drifting into error, and in order to effectively serve and honor Christ. This was a core conviction at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. So, in each of these brief articles, with the help of the reformers, we’ll be unpacking the question, “What do we believe about the Bible?”
On June 21, 1520, Pope Leo X released an official document for mass distribution in the Holy Roman Empire. It was a message he wanted the world to hear.
The document began with the following prayer: “Arise, O Lord, and judge thy cause. A wild boar has invaded thy vineyard… We can scarcely express our grief over the ancient heresies which have been revived in Germany.”1 Who was this wild boar reviving ancient heresies? Pope Leo was speaking about Martin Luther, a former monk, now a preacher and theology professor whose teaching and writing had taken the world by storm.
Leo continued, writing, “The books of Martin Luther which contain these errors are to be examined and burned. As for Martin himself… we give him sixty days in which to submit… Anyone who presumes to infringe our excommunication and anathema will stand under the wrath of Almighty God and of the apostles Peter and Paul.”
On June 21, 1520, the Roman Catholic Church officially declared Martin Luther a heretic. He was anathematized, effectively condemned to hell, and he was summoned to stand trial.
So what in the world did Luther write to provoke such anger from the church of his day? The document condemning Luther focused on 41 errors in his writing. These points focused mainly on Luther’s teaching that human beings are desperately sinful and unable to merit God’s favor, that Christ alone can provide forgiveness of sins, and that Scripture is the ultimate and final source of truth.
Luther’s trial was held in the southwestern German town of Worms. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was there to personally oversee the proceedings, and thousands came to witness what Luther would do. On the first day of his trial, standing before Emperor Charles, Luther was given the opportunity to recant his writings, and perhaps save his life. In a low, almost whispered voice, he asked for time to think. He was given one day.
The next day, the anticipation of Luther’s response was so strong the council moved to a larger hall to accommodate all the spectators. Around 6pm Luther was called in and asked, “Martin, answer candidly… do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” And in this packed hall, before the Roman Emperor and hundreds of other listeners, the simple German professor answered loud and clear, “Since then your Majesty and your lordship desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth… My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything… Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
What gave Martin Luther the confidence to do that? What gave him the guts to stand defiantly before the greatest powers in the world? Well, he told us! He said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Luther’s courage came from his conviction that Scripture alone is the final authority in the Christian life. And no one, no matter how much power or tradition surrounds them, no one has the right to stand above or equal to God’s Word.
That is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. It was the truth that fueled the reformation, and by God’s grace, it is the truth that will fuel the church and our lives today.
So, in the next 5 posts, I want to unpack this doctrine by pointing you to five convictions the reformers held regarding Scripture’s authority, truthfulness, sufficiency, necessity, and clarity.
- Facts and quotations from this story come from Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1950. ↩