Sola Scriptura: How One Rule Keeps Us Straight when it Comes to God

There is a moment from my opening days of Bible College that I love to share. It comes from the first day of our Systematic Theology course. Who knew such a simple exercise could have such an impact on my heart?

The professor asked us to take out a sheet of paper. We were given a few minutes to write out everything we knew about God. After we finished and the papers were collected, we were told to expect the same assignment at the close of the semester. Sure enough, that day came and we wrote new descriptions about God, and they were much longer, filled with the theological words and ideas we acquired over those months of study.

Young man reading small Bible

It is incredibly helpful to take a course in theology. Doing so forces the student to “unlearn what he has learned” on his own in order to grow and accept what Scripture actually shows about God and how He relates with humanity. So many don’t have such an opportunity. Left to develop an understanding of God on their own, there is a great danger that can cause serious problems for us. Thankfully there is a simple rule to keep us safe.

I was recently part of a group discussion where one attender had some very different ideas about Jesus. Convinced of their truth, he shared them with us like we must believe as he did. How could we not see it? So I asked him where he received the information he used to make the conclusion. Was it a sermon he heard, a book read or teaching somewhere? He shared how he read between the lines and imagined it that way.

Imagination can helpful when it comes to putting ourselves in a location far away, or when reading something and seeing it in our mind’s eye. But imagination can lead us astray when it’s set free without any boundaries or basis.

Thankfully there is a way to reign in our imagination to keep us on a clear path to understanding God and the Scriptures. It also helps us detect and correct doctrines that may sound good and useful, but are actually contrary to God and His will for us. It is a short, simple rule, contained in two Latin words: sola scriptura.

Sola scriptura is one of five key ideas from the Protestant Reformation. At that time, as in ours, religious leaders and teachers were putting forth doctrines and practices as if they were from God Himself. Some of them were forced upon the worldwide Church. The term sola scriptura means “by Scripture alone”, and makes the Bible the final word on doctrine and teaching. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Sola scriptura (… “by Scripture alone”) is the Protestant Christian doctrine that the Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice. Sola scriptura does not deny that other authorities govern Christian life and devotion, but sees them all as subordinate to and corrected by the written word of God. (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_scriptura)

To embrace sola scriptura is to be willing to take everything I believe about God and test it against the Scriptures. Every belief, practice, doctrine or teaching which is in conflict with Scripture must be dropped in favor of what agrees with Scripture. Only then will I truly be able to know God as He reveals Himself through His inspired Word, and be equipped to live as He designed me to.

Consider these Scriptures:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV)

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. . . . And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:16, 19-21 NIV)

This should be the easiest part of living for Jesus Christ. It means I don’t have to try to pull God’s plan for my life out of the sky. When I run into situations where the “right” answer eludes me, I am not in danger of making it up and suffering for choosing one of a thousand “wrong” answers. All I have to do is know God’s Word as it is, comparing it to itself, and keeping my own ideas out of the mix.

But it isn’t that easy, is it? It takes discipline and facing the reasons why we choose to live with our own ideas instead of living by the Scriptures. A later post will explore the reasons why we don’t live sola scriptura.

Still, we need to get back to the Bible as the standard for knowing God and His Word for our lives. Filling in the blanks with personal preference and imagination can be extremely dangerous, especially when we start telling or teaching it to others. The Scriptures are there to keep us on track. All we have to do is grab hold of them, read them, and allow them to inform and guide our daily living.

Free Bible Resources

If you don’t have a Bible and you’re reading this post, there are several free Bible options available to you.

  • YouVersion and BibleGateway are always available in multiple versions and languages at their website or as an app for your smartphone or tablet. You can also choose reading plans to help you read all or part of the Bible, with plans for certain seasons, all the way to reading the Bible through over a couple of years.
  • BibleStudyTools.com gives you access to many versions as well, but also provides study tools such as Lexicons (for discovering the meaning of words from the original languages the Bible was written in), Concordances (which show you all the verses with a specific word), Commentaries, Encyclopedias, and many more reference works.
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4 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura: How One Rule Keeps Us Straight when it Comes to God

  1. However, the pillar and foundation of the Truth is the Church of the Living God as Saint Paul tells us. Also, Saint Peter warns about reading Scripture and people wresting it to their own destruction. And let’s not forget that the Apostles knew Jesus and passed on what He did and said through the Church and there was no Christian Bible for 300+ years after Jesus ascended into Heaven until the Church codified the canon. The last sentence of Saint John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus said and did so much more than was recorded in the Gospel. We know what and how He did what He did and does through the Holy Spirit that He gave to the Apostles so they would remember and be able to pass it on.

    Jesus didn’t give us a book, He gave us the Church to transmit the Faith and guide us to Heaven.

    1. Thank you for mentioning the Church. Allow me to make just one clarification. Sola Scriptura does not mean that we do not allow for the authority and teaching of the Church. In fact, many of those who embraced Sola Scriptura during the Reformation were quick to quote the Early Church Fathers. What Sola Scriptura does create is a safeguard, a litmus test so to speak. Any doctrine, regardless of revelation, understanding, or cultural circumstance, which is contrary to Scripture, is to be disregarded in favor of God’s inspired Word.

      God did, in fact, give us a Book. That is the point of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. He inspired it and He preserves it. Even Jesus reminds us how Scripture endures until all things are fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18).

    2. I understand what you’re saying and I think it’s a valuable and wonderful exercise to spend our time with Scripture. Yet, Sola Scriptura leaves each of us to decide what Scripture means, and we know that this has led to craziness and even deadly consequences. This may be as you say a litmus test, but that still presumes that each of us knows the true meaning and has the full understanding of what the Scriptures are truly saying in order to test things. I cannot have such confidence and trust in myself, and don’t in most others either. Look where that has led us over the last 500 years: we now have 40,000+ different versions of the “truth” just among Christians. How many Holy Spirits are there?

      Please don’t understand me as trying to pick a fight with you. There’s a reason I follow your blog and it’s not because I don’t appreciate what you write. I’m Catholic but I have a Baptist side of the family where we debate these things! What you wrote gives me and others useful food for thought and is helpful. As any sincere disciple, I care about these most important things and have spent a long time pondering them, as I will I hope until I cannot any longer!

    3. I have a great respect for those who have gone before. And you’re right, we have to be careful that we don’t assume we are smart enough to figure it out. Your comments aren’t a problem at all. I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for being part of the discussion.

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