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Strange Fire Conference: Scripture Alone

The final session on day two of the Strange Fire conference was led by Steven Lawson who spoke on “The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura.” This was another historical message meant to demonstrate how our forebears were committed to the doctrine of Scripture alone.

Tonight the focus of our study will be another historical theology overview of a critical issue that ties in wonderfully with this entire conference.

It’s the subject of the Puritan commitment to Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura (Latin for “Scripture alone”) served as the foundation for the four other solas of the Reformation: sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (by faith alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). These five all fit together as one statement of truth, one declaration of the true saving gosepl of Jesus Christ. Sola scriptura is the foundation upon which everything rests, everything we believe, embrace, and hold dear.

Rome said “We accept Scripture, but also Church tradition, ecclesiastical hierarchies, etc.” But the Reformers said “No, it’s sola scriptura. If anything else is added to the foundation of the church, the foundation will be split and unable to hold the rest of the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Upon the foundation of sola scripture are three massive pillars which frame and uphold the gospel in its most basic formulation—by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. And when this foundation and these pillars are in place, the crown can be erected across which is written soli Deo gloria.

After the Reformers, the next giants of faith were the Puritans. These came around the time when Queen Elizabeth began to reign. Few movements in church history have ever been more Bible centered than was the Puritan movement.

I want to consider their view of sola Scriptura under 3 headings:

  1. Defined by the Westminster Divines
  2. Diluted by the Quakers
  3. Defended by John Owen

Defined by the Westminster Divines

What are the distinguishing marks out of the Bible itself regarding sola scriptura?

First, it would have to begin with the inspiration of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). Every chapter, verse, and book in the canon is breathed out by God. The authors recorded exactly what God wanted them to write. Matthew 4:4 says every word of Scripture comes out of the mouth of God. Hebrews 4:12 says this book is alive. It has the life of God within it. In John 6:63 Jesus says the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

Secondly, the inerrancy of Scripture is included in the doctrine of sola scriptura. Since the Bible is God-breathed, and since God is holy, he cannot lie. Thus the God-breathed Bible is totally true. Hebrews 6:18 says it is impossible for God to lie.

Third, the infallibility of Scripture. All that is recorded in Scripture must come to pass. The words of the Lord cannot fail. In Matthew 5:18 Jesus says that until heaven and earth pass away nothing will pass from the Law and the Prophets until all is accomplished. The Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).

Fourth, the authority of Scripture. Being infallible, inerrant, and God-breathed, it comes as God’s very words, with sovereign authority. It is the law of the Lord and binding upon every man’s conscience and life.

Fifth, its perspicuity. Sola scriptura means the word of God is clear and understandable, a lucid revelation. In Matthew 19:4 Jesus asks, “Have you not read?” implying that God has so clearly spoken in his word that no man can render the excuse that he did not understand what God was saying. We need the illumination of the Holy Spirit, yes, but any shortcoming in understanding the Bible is not on the part of the Bible but on the part of man.

Sixth, sola scriptura implies the sufficiency of scripture. The word of God is able to accomplish all of God’s purposes here on earth as his word is brought to bear on the men and issues of this world. God’s word will not return to him empty or void. God’s redemptive purposes will be carried out in this world by the word of God which is powerful to convict, convert, conform, console, and correct. It is powerful, more powerful than any other object you and I will ever hold in our hand.

Seventh, sola scriptura implies the immutability of Scripture, that it will never change but always be the same. Psalm 119:160 – “Every one of your righteous ordinances is everlasting.” Right will always be right. Wrong will always be wrong. The way of salvation will forever be the way of salvation. God’s word is unchanging because God is unchanging.

Eighth, sola scriptura also implies the invincibility of Scripture. It is the superior weapon. Sharper than any two-edged sword.

Ninth, and finally, sola scriptura implies the finality of Scripture. That there is no new revelation to be given to man after the close of the canon of Scripture, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

All of these truths are inherent in the statement of “sola scriptura.” The ninth point is particularly important to our conference here: the exclusive finality of divine revelation in the written word of God.

The Puritans convened in 1643 to begin writing the Westminster Confession. In 1646 they completed their draft and ratification of the Westminster Confession of Faith. One hundred and twenty-one scholars, theologians, pastors and teachers held over 1100 sessions. They also wrote the Shorter and Longer Catechisms.

Chapter 1 of the Confession begins “Of the Holy Scriptures.” As new challenges had arisen since the Reformation, they had to be more explicit and detailed on this point than ever before. They saw it necessary at the very outset to defend the idea that revelation has ceased and has been captured in full in the Scriptures. They then go on to defend the inspired nature of the Scriptures and how they are now the rule of faith and life. After this they state that the Apocrypha is not part of the Bible, but that only the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments are.

The fourth section of Chapter 1 states that the authority of Scripture ought to be believed and obeyed. In the sixth section they write of its sufficiency. There is no need for appendixes to supplement what has been recorded in the Bible. Here in the sixth section is another cessationist statement. It says that nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.

In sections 7 and 9 of Chapter 1 they deal with the perspicuity of Scripture—all the things that pertain to salvation are clearly propounded in the Bible. Everything you need to know to be saved and follow the will of God is clearly spelled out in this book. It’s not hard to understand, it’s just hard to swallow. They also go on to say that not only the learned but also the unlearned may attain to a sufficient understanding of them. Section 9 says that Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. If something is unclear in one place, another place in Scripture explains it. Finally, in section 10 is a summation of the chapter that states the authority of the word. The Holy Spirit himself speaks in the Scriptures. This is where he has chosen to speak.

This is the commitment of the Puritans in 1646. The church has always been the strongest when it takes this stand on the word of God. If the church takes one step off of sola scriptura, she puts her foot on the slippery slope leading to liberalism, ecumenicalism, agnosticism and eventually atheism. Every church, seminary, denomination that goes astray goes astray at this point. This is essential. We’re not just dogmatic about this; we’re bulldogmatic about it. It is not up for debate.

Diluted by the Quakers

Whenever God opens the heavens to bless his people, the devil opens his mouth to blast them. At the exact same time as the Westminster Divines were writing the Confession, the Quakers were forming. They claimed to be receiving new revelations and prophecies. They were lead by a man named George Fox. At the heart of their theology was this message, that one can be saved apart from the Scripture, that there is an inner light in all man, and this inner revelation makes salvation for all humanity possible. They called this light within the “indwelling spirit” which they claimed was even in unbelievers.

As they gathered together, the Quakers claimed that they had the Holy Spirit within them. Their worship services had no ordained pastors. They would all sit in a building like we’re sitting here and would be encouraged to meditate, and as you would feel prompted, you were encouraged to stand up and speak your thoughts to others. This commitment to be open and uncautious led them into all kinds of bizarre behaviors and beliefs, including going naked as a sign of judgment to others.

I’m telling you, if you take one step off of sola scriptura you have put your foot on a theological banana peel that will send you down till you hit bottom.

Defended by John Owen

John Owen gave himself to address the fanaticism of the Quakers. In 1659 he responded by writing “A Defense of Sacred Scripture Against the Fanatics.” I want to zone in on chapter 3 “On the Perfection of Scripture”. Here he states his case for the lunacy of these charismatic excesses on the perfection of the written word of God.

He argues that Genesis to Revelation has everything necessary for the believer, that it is perfect as it stands, and that any attempt to add to it is an attack on the perfection of it.

He writes that the Scriptures are the settled, ordinary means of grace, a perfect and unshakable rule for divine worship that leaves no room for any new revelations. If you are seeking any of these charismatic new revelations it is because you have no understanding of the perfections of the word of God.

Owen asks what is the practical good of Scripture if it needs poor mortal man to continue to add to it? He then lists seven consecutive paragraphs in defense:

  1. God has revealed everything that is needed in the Bible to lead you to Christ and godliness and on to heaven.
  2. All of this that is revealed in the Bible, whether explicit or implicit, is clearly stated and understandable.
  3. There is absolutely no room for new revelations (which is exactly how John the Apostle ends the book of Revelation).
  4. It is most supreme arrogance and pride for mere men to propose novel matters of faith or practice not revealed by God himself in his word.
  5. As the teachings of the fanatics contain matter alien to the Scriptures, shun them as diabolical, useless, groundless, and false. He says such teaching is from the devil.
  6. This inner light, this supposedly intuitive, subjective message from the Holy Spirit in you, not coming from the written word of God, would divert attention away from the perfection of the written word of God in the Bible.
  7. The Bible is a complete and perfect rule. Since the completion of the canon of Scripture there are no new revelations. None are to be expected or permitted. He then adds, if the Scriptures are perfect and complete then what need do we have for new revelations and uncontrolled enthusiasm? That is a rhetorical question whose answer is obvious. Zero.

1662 is a year that will live in infamy in church history. It was in this year, two years after Charles II came back to restore the monarchy in England, that the English parliament passed the Act of Uniformity. This required every preacher in the Church of England to conform to a prescribed set of doctrines and rites or else lose their ministries. And on August 24th, 1662 two thousand Puritan preachers were put out of their pulpits in what has become known as the Great Ejection. Two years later another act was passed by Parliament to prevent these preachers from preaching in private homes and other venues. Soon after they were even barred from coming within five miles of any city. This also meant they were now forbidden from being buried in church cemeteries.

Whenever I go to London I go to Smithfield, and soon after I visit Bunhill fields, where the Puritans were buried outside of the city limits. There you see the tombs of John Owen, John Bunyan, Isaac Watts, Thomas Goodwin, and many other Puritan giants, many of whom have no headstones as they died in anonymity. They were willing to pledge their life and their death on sola scriptura.

May we here tonight have a cessation clause in our personal statement of faith. May we not be given to the errors of this age. May the Word of God regulate all of our lives and ministries and be the only rule of our faith and standard of what is true in this world. May God give us much grace to stand upon the word of God.

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