That was a movie clip from a classic, Martin Luther, the 1953 version starring Niall MacGinnis as Luther, here discussing Romans 1:17, the famous Reformation text.
Pastor John, as you well know, Reformation Day is Monday — the 499th anniversary of Luther writing out his Ninety-Five Theses and sending them to the Archbishop. So let’s tackle two questions on what divides Rome and Geneva. The first one, for today, comes from Dan: “Dear Pastor John, several of my Evangelical friends have converted to Roman Catholicism in recent years. One key issue has been over whether the Bible is our sole rule of faith. After reviewing some of the Catholic arguments, I’ve come to appreciate their persuasive force. As I’ve engaged Protestants, however, I have not yet found an equally persuasive defense of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Pastor John, I was wondering if you could please help persuade me.”
I don’t know if I can persuade you. There are good books and so, maybe we will make some of those known in the podcast, but here is what I want to say. Here is what carries me and if it helps, it helps. I have three kinds of responses, all of which, Dan, will, I hope, help you resist the temptation to move toward the Roman Catholic Church.
“It is impossible to have biblical faith in a truth one does not believe is in the Bible.”
1) Here is my first response. If the Bible is God’s word, by definition no human authority or human institution can serve alongside the Bible with equal authority. Neither the pope nor any human counsel or any scholar or priest or pastor or human tradition has the authority of the Bible if it is God’s word. And it is.
Not only that, but the Bible itself nowhere grants to any person or ecclesiastical office an authority equal to its own. There are pastors and teachers which Christ gives to the church (Ephesians 4:11). Their job is not to impart revelation, but to stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And Paul makes plain in 1 Corinthians 14:38 that the authority of those in the church must always give an account to the Scriptures, not themselves. That is the first response.
2) My second response is that it is neither biblical nor wise — that is kind of a paraphrase of Martin Luther’s famous statement — it is neither biblical nor wise to surrender one’s conscience to any human authority outside the Bible. Indeed, it is impossible — try to get me here — it is impossible to have biblical faith in a truth one does not believe is in the Bible. It is not the nature of biblical faith. It is not the nature of biblical faith or biblical submission or biblical allegiance to God in his word that it would bow to any man who teaches anything contrary to the Scriptures.
Which means that the final locus of authority is in the Scriptures, and the final court of appeal to what the Scriptures teach is in the Spirit-illumined conscience, not in a second authority outside the Bible and outside the conscience. This conviction is rooted in the very nature of biblical faith and the nature of biblical submission. And here is what I mean.
“It is neither biblical nor wise to surrender one’s conscience to any human authority outside the Bible.”
To say another human authority outside the Bible could bind the human conscience against what it sees in Scripture is to demand that faith and submission not be an act of understanding, but only an act of blind submission to external authority. It is in the very nature of faith that a person cannot believe as biblical something contrary to what he sees in the Bible just because another person tells him it is so. He can’t. It is the nature of faith.
You can’t believe as biblical what you don’t see as biblical, no matter who tells you to. If I see one thing in the Bible, but submit to an authority that teaches something different, I am de facto elevating that authority above the Bible. And I am attempting the impossible: to believe as biblical what I see to be unbiblical. That is my second response.
3) And the third response is this — and I have always been amazed that people don’t seem to function this way — namely, deciding what church to belong to. Don’t at that moment just take the issue of authority into account and leave all the other doctrines aside.
It seems to me that an evangelical who has shaped his convictions around biblical truth would have to simply close his eyes to be led in the dark in order to embrace the Roman Catholic doctrines of baptismal regeneration with its undermining of the biblical necessity of saving faith as a sign of the new birth and the doctrine of justification on what God works in me, not on the basis of Christ alone through faith alone, and the doctrine of transubstantiation at the mass and the transfer of grace through those physical instruments and practices and the doctrine of indulgences as strategies of penance and forgiveness which the present pope has brought forward again and made explicit.
“The Bible nowhere grants to any person or ecclesiastical office an authority equal to its own.”
We thought that was all gone, and it is not all gone: the veneration of Mary, which I just saw appallingly in my days in Italy a few weeks ago, and the prayers to her, elevating her in effect to a co-redeemer with the accompanying diminishing of the centrality of Christ in the piety of millions of people.
So, in other words, when you ponder the issue of authority — that is, the issue of Scripture alone versus the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Church — are you willing to isolate that issue? Does not the entire sacramental system almost at every point contradict what you have seen in Scripture as an evangelical? And if so, are you willing to sacrifice your conscience and say, “I do not see what I see”?