The greatest of these is “Sola Scriptura”

Today Protestants around the world give thanks to God for the Reformation, the 16th-century movement which reclaimed the glorious doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone from the obscuring veils of Roman traditions. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther symbolized the heart of the Reformation by posting his 95 Theses in protest at the sale of indulgences by the Church. We summarize the Reformers’ convictions with 5 Solas: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. All of them are precious, but I’d argue that the greatest of them is the first: Sola Scriptura. I elevate it not because it is inherently more significant than the others, but because it is the source of the others (and thus is referred to as “the formal principle of the Reformation”). If we don’t acknowledge the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God, we have no basis to determine the doctrine of salvation—or anything else.

I was struck again by this from an unlikely source a few years ago. Victor Hugo wrote the following historical commentary during one of the (rather frustrating) plot lapses in The Hunchback of Notre Dame:

“The sixteenth century shattered religious unity. Before printing, the Reformation would just have been a schism; printing made it a revolution. Take away the printing press and heresy is enervated [weakened, destroyed]. Be it fate or providence, Gutenberg was Luther’s precursor.”

What Hugo is highlighting is the importance of the printed word—indeed, of the printed Word! In God’s providence, the Reformation took place in a time when thought and religion had been freed by Gutenberg’s press. This was no coincidence. An unbending commitment to the Word started, informed, and spread the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s main contribution to the Reformation was his commitment to Scripture, stated often, but never more beautifully or boldly than in his defense at the Diet of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

“I am bound by the Scriptures.” Yes. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Amen. That’s the Reformation in a nutshell. Indeed, it’s Christianity in a nutshell. Luther and the Reformers didn’t get everything right. They couldn’t have. But their role was like that of a good teacher—not to teach students every fact they will ever need to know, but to teach them how to learn. The Reformers reminded the church how to learn—how to think—by pointing us to the Scriptures and away from human authorities. That was their genius, built upon the genius of pre-Reformers like Wycliffe and Huss. Sola Scriptura!

There is no question that the great doctrines of the Reformation are under attack again today. Much of evangelicalism is “slouching towards Rome.” Our response, as ever, must be to tenaciously hold to the authority of the Scriptures. That’s not as simple as it seems, for there is ever the temptation to amend to the Word our own ideas. When the ideas are old, we call them “tradition.” When the ideas are new, we call them “contextualization.” Regardless of what extra-biblical ideas are called, we must not yield to them. We have a more sure word. We have an inspired Word. We have a sufficient Word. May we truly embrace it as our “only rule of faith and practice” as our creeds require. We can do no other. God help us.

Historian David McCullough on Our Use of Time

This interview with historian David McCullough is fascinating, first because he’s fascinating. (The combination of that mind with that voice and that manner is mesmerizing to me.) He is an award-winning author—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and others—especially for his biographies of the Panama Canal and of Presidents Harry S. Truman and John Adams. Less importantly, he’s the narrator from Seabiscuit; more importantly, perhaps, he’s the father of the “You’re not special” commencement-speech-giver. Bravo, dad.

The following interview is worth the few minutes it takes to watch. Don’t miss the last question, where a world-class historian takes a long-term view of our use of time. Yes, time. Ouch. “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

(HT: David Doran Jr.)

“For my sin’s sake…for His Son’s sake.”

Consider these gems from Thomas Playfere, an English churchman who taught at Cambridge around 1600:

“He that remembers his virtues hath no virtues to remember, seeing he wants humility, which is the mother virtue of all virtues. For this is the difference between the godly and the wicked: both remember virtues, but the godly remember other men’s virtues, the wicked remember their own.”

“Nay, I cannot hold my heart for my joy; yea, I cannot hold my joy for my heart; to think that He which is my Lord is become my Father, and so that He which was offended with me for my sin’s sake, is now reconciled to me for His Son’s sake.”

Both quotations were made by John Brown in Puritan Preaching in England (edited by C. Matthew McMahon), an edifying and challenging overview of English preaching through the centuries. It’s been good for my soul, and I gladly recommend it.

“Deeply Wounded.” Personal Tragedy and Gospel Advance

A recurring theme in the lives of those whom God has used in exceptional ways is exceptional suffering. Often, the Lord has used deep disappointment to direct His servants away from their own plans and to propel them into strategic ministries:

  • David Brainerd‘s expulsion from Yale released him from normal ministry in Connecticut (which became impossible without his degree) and prepared the way for him to take the gospel to the unreached Indians of modern-day New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
  • J. C. Ryle was planning on a lifetime in Parliament, where he surely would have thrived. However, a financial collapse took his father’s considerable fortune (to which he was heir) in one crushing day. It forced him into the ministry, the only profession for which he was qualified.
  • Nate Saint had an inflammation of the osteomyelitis in his leg on the very night before he was to report for special military training that would have prepared him to use his flying skills in combat. That door closed, choking him with grief, but preparing him for his ministry in Ecuador with Missionary Aviation Fellowship.

For those of us who know “the rest of the story,” these life-changing blows are simply steps to greater usefulness. But for these men, they were devastating, both when they happened and for years afterwards. Ryle said his father’s bankruptcy came to his mind every day, even 30 years later:

“I have not the least doubt it was all for the best. If my father’s affairs had prospered and I had never been ruined, my life, of course, would have been a very different one. I should have probably gone into Parliament very soon and it is impossible to say what the effect of this might have been upon my soul. I should have formed very different connections, and moved in an entirely different circle. I should never have been a clergyman, never have preached, written a tract or book. Perhaps I might have made shipwreck of spiritual things. So I do not mean to say at all, that I wish it to have been different to what it was. All I mean to say is that I was deeply wounded by my reverses, suffered deeply under them, and I do not think I have recovered in body and mind from the effect of them.” (Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle, pp. 37-38)

Of course, many choose to pursue the Christian ministry despite other compelling opportunities. C. T. Studd left a career in professional cricket to take the gospel to China, India, and Africa. William Borden left his family fortune to take the gospel to China. There are many similar examples. But the Lord has sometimes used personal tragedy to “shoehorn” people into ministries they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen, exercising the gracious prerogative described in Proverbs 16:9:

“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”

Feel free to chime in with other examples from church history. It’s healthy to remind ourselves of God’s goodness and sovereignty, especially in the midst of personal disappointments. Let these examples encourage you and build your faith!  Grace.

What I’m Reading: Spurgeon


I got started late on Christian biographies, and I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to catch up. I love novels for their artistry, well-told history for its heroism, and Christian devotionals for the insights they give me into my own soul. You’d think I’d have perceived early on that a good biography combines the best elements of all of these. Call me a slow learner.

Though I hadn’t read an official biography of Spurgeon until now, I’ve feasted on his sermons, devotionals, and commentaries for my entire adult life. Still, when I read Anrold Dallimore’s stirring and accessible biography, Spurgeon, I was overwhelmed. I’m still wondering if there were in fact 10 men who pulled off a colossal prank by attributing all of their combined efforts to one man and calling him Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Some books tell of how the Lord uses ordinary men. But Spurgeon was not ordinary. His giftedness was a marvel. He was indeed “The Prince of Preachers.” And a loving pastor. And an exceptional writer (though a good friend told him early on that he’d have to choose between the two; thank the Lord he did not!). And a gifted evangelist. And a remarkable reader. And a careful theologian. And a loving husband. And an effective father. And a tremendous administrator. And a tireless visionary. And a selfless contender for the faith. And an insatiable giver. It’s difficult to list (much less comprehend) all the irons he had in the fire. They included a pastor’s college, orphanages, publishing efforts, Sunday schools, church plants, missionary endeavors, diligent personal correspondence, and almost perpetual preaching appointments. Even a man with as far-reaching a ministry as D. L. Moody marveled at Spurgeon, even declining the initial invitation to preach in his pulpit because he felt so unworthy. Continue reading

Borrowing Brains: Bach

Two questions: First, what’s an informative and engaging biography of Johann Sebastian Bach?

Second, just for fun, what’s your favorite Bach piece, and why?

My girls and I thank  you.

A Little Luther in Celebration of Reformation Day

Note: If you don’t know that it’s Reformation Day, Google it. Because you should.

Beautiful Description of Justification

I love this gem from the Heidelberg Catechism:

Question 60: How are thou righteous before God?

Answer: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

Borrowing Brains: Favorite Missionary Biographies

I’m taking my own medicine. I recently urged the members of TCBC to expose themselves to missions in a variety of creative ways, one of which was reading missionary biographies. I confess that biographical reading is a weak point of mine, and I’d like to rectify that. I’m also preparing to present a missionary biography message to TCBC in a few months, and I need to choose one model missionary to get to know particularly well. (I did a biographical message on John Wycliffe last year and loved it!) So…

Which missionary and which biography/biographies would you recommend that I read first? Why? What makes the missionary and/or the book noteworthy? How has the Lord used it in your life?

Looking forward to some great answers! Thanks in advance!

Appropriate Gratitude for John Calvin

calvin cakeI’m grateful for the ministry of John Calvin, who was born 500 years ago today. I’ve especially benefitted from his excellent commentaries for the last decade, not to mention the “trickle down” of his teaching that I’ve gained from teachers and writers dead and living. (I’m especially appreciative of Michael Barrett, whose influence on me toward a Reformed soteriology was first and strongest.) But I’ve also been cringing a bit, fearing that the inevitable fanfare that will accompany this day might be ostentatious and, frankly, embarrassing. Happily—unless you’re a Calvin hater who would do well to consider this comically true advice—the words of gratitude to God for Calvin that I’ve seen have been appropriately simple. Here are some links to my favorite posts and resources, though I’m sure I’m missing many:

  • Dissidens sings “Happy Birthday, dear Calvin” in this brief post. Well done.
  • Theosource offers a brief look at Calvin’s devotional life, humility, and Christ-centeredness here.
  • Ben suggests singing a hymn and praying for the spread of the gospel, which is a great idea. [You might overlook his snarky comment at the end of this otherwise fine post. Give it a rest, pal. It's a happy day. :) ]
  • John Piper’s biographical lecture on Calvin can be heard or read here.
  • Joe Tyrpak’s biographical lecture on Calvin (given at TCBC around last Reformation Day) can be heard here.
  • Ligonier Ministries offers John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology (which I posted on here) for a donation of any amount. Details here.
  • Desiring God offers T. H. L. Parker’s brief biography for just $2, today only.

Lastly, while it’s good to give honor to those whom it is due, the best way to thank the Lord for Calvin’s influence during a critical time in church history and ever since is to focus on the God whom he loved and served. Soli Deo Gloria!

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