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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.


Take a Local “Missions Exposure Trip”

The following is a guest-post by Greg Buchanan, a student from Bob Jones University who did a ministerial internship with Tri-County Bible Church this summer. It describes a recent trip which Pastor Joe Tyrpak planned for several of our teens, including my oldest daughter. I love the idea and commend it to you.


How would you respond if you found out your teen was systematically attending services of false religions in a nearby city? Would your response change if the person taking your teen was your assistant pastor? Would that make it better or worse? Well, that’s essentially what a group of our teens did on their Missions Exposure Trip to Cleveland earlier this summer. In four packed days, the teens attended the Youth Shabbat service at the Temple Tifereth (a reformed Jewish synagogue), sat through mass at the Holy Rosary (a Roman Catholic church in Little Italy), met with a leader of The Grand Mosque (the largest mosque in OH), and attended mass at the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

So why take a “Missions Exposure Trip” as opposed to a typical “Missions Trip?” Our assistant pastor Joe Tyrpak came up with the concept based on his concerns that traditional teen missions trips have some inherent weaknesses (which he’ll discuss in an upcoming guest-post at MTC). The reason we’ve opted for “Missions Exposure Trips” is that we want our teens to realize the long-term needs in the areas we visit. We want them to see that those who are being taught error are the mission field—to actually see and hear what other religions are doing, not just read about it. We want to expose them to the opportunities and difficulties of these areas so they return home burdened about what needs to be accomplished for Christ. We hope that God will use trips like these to compel our youth to consider giving not just a weekend to the needs of the world, but possibly months or even entire years of their lives. And we pray that they will understand and love the gospel more as a result of what they’ve seen.

Because several of the places we visited gave us tours before their services started, our teens were able to ask specific questions about their beliefs. Everyone who talked to us was eager to discuss his/her religion, and we intentionally asked what misperceptions they thought we might have coming from an evangelical, Christian background. Although worded slightly differently from place to place, everyone we talked to gave the same fascinating reply that their religion has “more in common with ours than it does differences.” That statement alone was highly instructive for our teens; they were witnessing false religions deny Christ as the promised Messiah, deny Christ as the Son of God, deny Christ’s crucifixion, deny Christ’s resurrection, deny salvation by faith in Christ alone, and yet suggest that they really aren’t all that different from us. Our teens weren’t shaken.

One of the teens wrote, “Seeing how ‘similar’ yet DIFFERENT we are was such a blessing. It definitely makes you realize how blessed we are because we know Christ and what He did for us, and we are kept under His shed blood. We can look at those false religions with a heart that is full of gratitude and thankfulness to Christ that He chose us to save but also [with] a heart for the lost as well. There are many out there that don’t understand the true way to salvation and it is very sad.” Another teen commenting on the sermons she heard, “The rabbi at Tifereth talked about the 12 spies that went to Canaan. The moral of the story was to believe in yourself and seize the moment. At Trinity Cathedral, the lady priest talked about how she had never before really understood the Trinity… until the Lord spoke to her at McDonald’s. It’s so scary to think that people can make up their own ideas about things such as religion and feel sure that they are going to heaven. This makes me SO thankful that we have teachers at TCBC who study the truth and can explain it without mingling in random stories or morals.”

On Sunday morning, immediately after mass at Trinity Cathedral—by far the most stomach-churning service we attended (the lesbian dean preached blasphemy about the Trinity)—we went to an all-black Baptist church. Before we entered, Pastor Joe made very clear that this service was not another false religion to survey; this was us, and these were our brothers and sisters in Christ. Coming from a community well over 95% white, this congregation was by far the most distinct from our group in terms of culture and physical appearance. At any of the other places, we looked just like everyone else (if yamaka or prayer shawl were donned), and yet here where we looked the most different, we truly had the most in common. The contrast from Trinity Cathedral to this body of believers could not have been starker. We were warmly welcomed, and we worshipped with those believers united by the same grace, the same gospel, and the same cross.

Toward the end of the trip, the temptation we each faced was to be proud that “we’ve got it right” as opposed to all those who don’t, and Pastor Joe wisely reminded us that we have absolutely nothing in which to boast except Jesus Christ crucified. While it is appropriate for us to rejoice in the truth, we have it only by God’s grace. There is nothing that makes us any better than any of the people we encountered; we are needy sinners just like them and our hope and prayer is that they too will come to a true understanding of the gospel of grace.

Time will show the long-term impact of the trip, but overall, the entire experience was extremely shaping and culturally enriching for our teens. They saw truth contrasted with error. They saw that worship is not dependent on sincerity, beautiful sound, or being moved emotionally (the Jews and Catholics have these elements mastered). They saw how sobering it is for heart-felt prayers to ascend to the lofty heights of a cathedral ceiling and yet go no further. They saw the power of the gospel to make them color-blind and unite dynamically different cultures through grace. They saw the needs of the city and the possibility that God may use them to reach those needs.

On the same trip, the teens visited the City Mission, attended a service at the National Church Planter’s Conference, discussed multi-ethnic evangelism with church planter Todd Nye, and toured Baptist Mid-Missions, which is headquartered in Cleveland. Recreationally, they toured the Browns Stadium, visited significant monuments in Lakeview Cemetery, attended an Indians vs. Pirates game (which the Indians won!), explored the city, and ate lots of pizza from the Rascal House.

What do you think of this sort of missions exposure trip?  How do you feel about exposing youth to the diversity of false religions in this way? Would you consider organizing a similar trip for your church?

A Little Luther in Celebration of Reformation Day

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

Priest’s Supporters Aim at Sainthood

Cleveland Catholics are making the case for a 1950’s televangelist priest, Fulton J. Sheen, to be recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint. Part of their argument for his canonization is that he answered a prayer addressed to him by healing a dying infant, which could be one of two miracles necessary for him to be eligible for sainthood.

A video and story from Cleveland’s WKYC News Channel 3 can be found here.

Frankly, it feels a lot like the endeavors Coloradoans made to get Randy Gradishar and Goose Gossage elected into pro sports Hall of Fames when I was growing up—even to the point of debating over necessary “stats.” Strange.

Thankfully, the Bible teaches that our “sainthood” or holy standing with God rests in the finished work of Jesus Christ, not in our own performances (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Bible offers holiness as a gift to sinners, regardless of what they’ve done (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). And the only one we need to make our case is Christ:

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)

That’s the Gospel, and it’s further explained in this mp3. I commend it to you.

Beautiful, Hopeless Legalism

I’ll not forget the first time I saw the film, The Mission. The music by Ennio Morricone is among the most beautiful and haunting you’ll ever hear. The scenery is stunning. The acting is top-shelf. The story (essentially historical) is heartrending. What struck me more than anything else, however, is the religious symbolism of a scene (below) in which a former slave trader and murderer (played by Robert De Niro) is doing penance. Since he chose his crime, his priest tells him, he must also choose his penance in order to find redemption, and the scene records his self-inflicted punishment as he claws his way back to morality and God’s favor. Though it ends with a moving portrayal of forgiveness on a human level, the scene provides a vivid and tragic example of works righteousness, of Roman Catholicism, of Islam, of American morality, of legalism of any kind. There’s no grace here—at least not from a God and Savior. Instead, there is religion at its most hopeless and damning, experienced every day by billions who are depending on their own determination and suffering to atone for their sins—something they can never achieve.

Contrary to this moving scene, no human can earn righteousness with God, regardless of his supposed goodness or penance (which is absolutely foreign to the Scriptures). Nor can any human “release” another from his sins. Indeed, despite the scene’s opening lines, sin is more than the weight of a guilty conscience that must be appeased, as though one must and can forgive himself. Rather, sin is an offense—it is rebellion!—against God. He needs to be appeased, and that’s exactly what the death of His beloved Son accomplished. Nothing else will suffice. What people need, then, is the grace of God extended through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who died as a sacrifice to pay the entire penalty of our sins (John 1:29; 1 John 4:10). They need to turn away from their futile works and embrace the gospel, as the Bible repeatedly says:

“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5)

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“And there is salvation in no one else [in no one but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:18)

That’s Christianity—free salvation provided by Jesus Christ’s substitutionary death and received by faith alone. The sort of religious works depicted in The Mission, however, will only lead to condemnation. Regardless of your religious background, if you see yourself in this scene, I urge you to flee to the gospel and find forgiveness, full and free, in Jesus Christ.