Sola Scriptura & God’s Prevailing Word in Acts
Reformation & Sola Scriptura
It’s Reformation Sunday. Over 500 years ago this Wednesday, Martin Luther hung his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church in Germany. Numerous traditions had evolved—the authority of the pope to remit sins, the treasury of merit, indulgences, purgatory. Luther looked at these traditions, read his Bible, and found none of them squaring with God’s word, and all them undermining justification and Christian assurance. So he called the church to repent where she had grossly erred.
Immediately, the church was thrust into a debate over authority. On the one side stood the Roman Church. For Rome, Scripture and the Church were equal and interdependent authorities.[i] Rome never denied the Bible as authoritative. But Rome did deny the Bible was the sufficient and final authority for faith and life. One theologian appointed by Leo X responded to Luther like this: “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic.”
On the other side stood Luther and the Reformers. For them, Scripture wasn’t just one authority alongside tradition, but Scripture was the sufficient and final authority for faith and life. Scripture stands supreme over its interpreters. Luther wrote, “The saints could err in their writings…but the Scriptures cannot err.”[ii] Therefore, he concluded, “Scripture alone is the true lord and master over all writings and doctrines on earth.”[iii]
From this controversy, rose one crucial Sola among five others, Sola Scriptura. It’s Latin for Scripture alone. Matthew Barrett explains it like this: “[because it is God’s inspired word], only Scripture…is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.”[iv] To be clear—especially for us Baptists who don’t have a great reputation for valuing historic creeds and confessions—the Reformers weren’t denying tradition as an authority. This wasn’t “me and my Bible” type of thinking. Where the Holy Spirit has in fact illumined the church’s understanding of Scripture, we should learn from tradition.
The point the Reformers were making is that tradition itself can’t be made a separate and equal authority to Scripture. To receive Scripture on its own terms meant to uphold Scripture alone as the sufficient and final authority over all others. Tradition may be a ministerial authority. But to Scripture alone belongs magisterial authority.
Sola Scriptura Still Relevant
Sola Scriptura sounds a bit archaic. But what it means couldn’t be more relevant. If not careful, some of our traditions can get elevated above Scripture. Like little Pharisees we add commands where Scripture is silent, or avoid obedience where Scripture speaks. Jesus’ rebuke is well-deserved: “For the sake of your tradition you make void the word of God.” Or perhaps there’s such dependence on the notes in your study Bible, functionally you treat them like Scripture too.
For others, reason becomes an independent authority set above Scripture. Rather than receiving God’s revelation on its own terms, people formulate ideas about God that cannot be challenged or corrected by Scripture. They only let the Bible assert what they think it ought to assert by their own reasoning. That’s not to say we don’t reason—true faith includes sound thinking, making logical judgments about the way things really are. It’s only to say that reason’s first duty is to receive God’s self-revelation rather than suppressing it or sitting in judgment over it.
Others elevate experience above Scripture. Even in some “Christian” circles experience becomes the authoritative grid by which they approach God’s word. As long as Scripture agrees with their experience, they accept its teaching. But as soon as Scripture contradicts their experience, they reinterpret Scripture or reject it.[v]
Culture is another authority people elevate above Scripture. There are aspects of culture that Jesus and the apostles don’t condemn, but embrace to relate the gospel. But there are other ideas and values within cultures that directly contradict Scripture—such as ideas about God and his nature, about same-sex unions, about sexuality defining our humanity, about self-preferences creating gender, about personal comfort trumping human dignity, about manhood as power and domination.
Whether it’s tradition, reason, experience, culture, and so on—what we’re ultimately talking about here is a matter of authority. Who or what has the sufficient and final authority to tell us who God is and what he’s like and who we are and how we ought to live? According to Luke’s testimony in Acts, the early church esteemed Scripture as the sufficient and final authority for faith and life.
The Scripture in the Book of Acts
Now, Luke himself doesn’t aim to develop a doctrine of Scripture in Acts. But if we accept Luke’s testimony on its own terms, we can draw some pretty substantial conclusions about what Jesus and the apostles believed about Scripture. Luke tells us plainly that he bases his account on eyewitness testimony. He followed all things closely. He wrote them down in an orderly account, to provide certainty concerning the things taught about Jesus, and then in Acts, about what Jesus did through the early church.[vi]
1. Scripture is supremely authoritative because God’s inspiration stands behind every word within it.
So what did the apostles—who were taught by Jesus—what did they believe about Scripture, and how did that play out in the church? I have five observations. Number one, the apostles treat Scripture as supremely authoritative because God’s inspiration stands behind every word within it.
That truth stands out especially when they quote God’s written word from the Old Testament. Look at Acts 1:16, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas…” Then he quotes Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. Are the Psalms David’s words or the Holy Spirit’s? The answer is Yes. God gave us his word through the instrumentality of men.
He so superintended the human authors of Scripture that although what they wrote was genuinely their own, it was nevertheless the very word of God, verbally inspired in every part equally—to use our own Statement of Faith. To read the Psalms isn’t to read words produced merely by a man; it’s to read the very words of God. Therefore, Peter leads the church to obey them.
Or, look at 4:24-25. They pray to the Sovereign Lord of whom they assert two things. He made heaven and earth—verse 24. Then verse 25, you “through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit…” Then he quotes Psalm 2. So the Sovereign Lord spoke. He spoke by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of David. Again, God’s written word is ultimately a product of God’s Spirit.
Let that amaze you. The Sovereign Lord of all, the one who made heaven and earth—he speaks for your sake in the written word. He didn’t have to speak but he does. We don’t live in a closed universe; God reveals himself to mankind with words. If you want to hear your Creator speak, open and read the Bible.
Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 is our next stop. Look at 7:6, “God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years.” That’s straight from Genesis 15:13-14. Stephen says God spoke these words.
Or look at verses 48-51. “The Most High doesn’t dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says [this is Isaiah 66:1-2], ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’ You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit…” Stephen takes what God said through Isaiah. Then he rebukes them for resisting the Holy Spirit. Isaiah’s written words are the Spirit’s words. To ignore Scripture is to ignore God.
More texts like these exist in Acts. The texts we’ve looked at so far quote from all three portions of the Old Testament—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. In each case it’s clear: when the apostles quote Scripture, they speak about those words as the very words of God inspired by his Spirit. Acts agrees with 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” Because they’re not merely the words of men but the very words of God, they demand utmost attention and reverence.
When Scripture speaks, God himself speaks; and God possesses all authority. No pope or priest or pastor or church council or theologian has all authority. Even the apostle Paul was tested by the Scripture. The Bereans of Acts 17:11 examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul was saying was accurate. All must submit to the scrutiny of God’s word in Scripture. Because that word carries God’s authority, we must shift our allegiance always to what he says. That’s why Scripture demands repentance.
2. Scripture is completely trustworthy because God himself is trustworthy, always fulfilling his covenant words/promises.
Number two: Scripture is completely trustworthy because God himself is trustworthy, always fulfilling his covenant words/promises. Again, notice 1:16. “The Scripture had to be fulfilled” regarding Judas’s replacement. Why? Verse 20, “For it is written…” If God inspired words anticipating Judas’s replacement, then it couldn’t be otherwise. God said it. It is written. He will be faithful to see it through; and he does so in verses 24-26.
Or, we come to 2:16. The Spirit falls at Pentecost, and Peter says, “This is what was uttered by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it shall be, God declares [again, God speaking], that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…’” Then verse 32, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” God promised the Spirit in Joel. God then fulfills that promise in the risen Jesus.
Again, 3:17-18. “Brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.” That is, even their ignorant and evil actions against Jesus were worked into the plan. Nothing would stop God from faithfully fulfilling what he said would happen to his Christ—that he would suffer, a suffering that causes the blotting out of sins for all who receive Christ, according to verse 19.
Look next at 13:32. Paul says, “We bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ Therefore he says also in another psalm, ‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’”
Notice, he explains what’s written from three different places in Scripture—Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 55:3, and Psalm 16:10. To read those words is to read God himself promising. Then he shows that God fulfilled those promises by raising Jesus from the dead. By resurrection, God establishes Jesus as the unstoppable King of Psalm 2. By resurrection, God showers the blessings of David on us in Jesus, fulfilling Isaiah 55. By resurrection, God overcomes death in Jesus and wins us joy in his presence—Psalm 16.
All these promise-fulfillment examples solidify that God is trustworthy. When he promises to do something, his word will never err or fail. Through his covenant word, he proves himself trustworthy in all he speaks. Our words lack this kind of dependability. How often do we make promises, but then due to some unforeseen circumstance we can’t fulfill them? How often do people speak, but then due to some new piece of information must correct what they said? That never happens with God.
If God errs in what he speaks and plans, he’s not God. Not only is the true God all wise, but he knows the end from the beginning. He possesses all authority to govern the universe and all power to ensure all things fulfill his word accordingly. His words don’t merely predict what history may hold; his words determine the way history will unfold. That’s why our words, and the church’s words, must always be tested by God’s words. People err. God never errs and his words are always trustworthy.
The promise-fulfillment dynamic in Acts helps us see this about God and the character of his covenant words. It also gives us a firm foundation when we encounter apparent contradictions or encounter skeptics seeking to undermine Scripture. If God has proven himself trustworthy, then we can work from there, seeking further understanding with the more challenging details.
3. Scripture is redemptive in nature because it makes one wise for salvation through Jesus Christ.
Number three, Scripture is redemptive in nature because it makes one wise for salvation through Jesus Christ.[vii] Throughout Acts God speaks to save sinners. The Scriptures exist so that we know his saving presence and grace through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Philip’s ministry is a great example of this. Look at chapter 8 and notice how interchangeable the word of God is with the gospel of Christ.
Verse 4: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.” Again in verse 12: “But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ…” Verse 14, “When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God...” Again in verse 25: “when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel…”
In other words, to preach the word is to unfold God’s purposes in Jesus Christ from Scripture. Christ is so central to Scripture’s testimony that to leave him out is to miss the point of Scripture altogether. That’s why many misunderstood Scripture—they missed God’s purpose in Christ. That’s why the Ethiopian Eunuch didn’t understand Isaiah 53. But what does Philip do later in 8:28? “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told [the Eunuch] the good news about Jesus.”
As Peter puts it in 10:43. “To [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness [for this purpose] that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” God spoke to reveal the way of salvation in Christ, the way out of our sins and darkness, the way to know God truly and personally.
This distinguishes Scripture from what’s been called God’s general revelation. General revelation refers to the things God reveals about himself to all people both in his creation and in their conscience.[viii] Both creation and conscience scream that God exists, that he is powerful (Rom 1:20), that he is good (Acts 14:17), that he is knowable (Acts 26-27), and that he made a world where right and wrong exist (Rom 1:32). The problem is that, in our sinfulness, we suppress the truth God reveals in creation and conscience.
If we are to be saved, general revelation won’t do it. All general revelation can do is condemn us. God must reveal himself to us in a special and particular way. He does this both in the Living Word, Jesus Christ, and in the written word, the Scriptures that expound Jesus’ person and work and lead us to salvation in him.
4. Scripture, as God’s word, is ever-prevailing in the face of numerous obstacles.
Number four, Scripture is ever-prevailing in the face of numerous obstacles. The Lord once said through Isaiah, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades…but the word of our God will stand forever.” That has become evident in our study through Acts, hasn’t it?
All kinds of obstacles have stood in the way. Obstacles outside the church like crooked people (Acts 2:40), stubborn unbelief (Acts 19:9), harmful threats (Acts 3:18), religious persecution (Acts 5:18), demonic powers (Acts 8:7), manipulative pretenders (Acts 8:9), bad misunderstandings (Acts 14:18), idolatrous worldviews (Acts 17:29), sophisticated philosophers (Acts 17:18). Also, obstacles within the church like ethnic prejudice (Acts 11:3), people lying (Acts 5:4), complaints over neglect (Acts 6:1), differences in strategy (Acts 15:39), false teachers (Acts 20:30).
All these are obstacles similar to the ones we still face. Yet throughout Acts, we continue hearing the sweet refrain: “…many of those who had heard the word believed” (Acts 4:4); “the word of God continued to increase” (Acts 6:7); “those scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4); “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24); “the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:49); “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10); “the word of the Lord continued to increase” (Acts 19:20).
Preachers will live and die. Regimes will rise and fall. Various philosophies will come and go. But God’s word will remain forever. His word will prevail. Nothing else can make such a boast.
5. Scripture, as God’s word, is how the risen Lord Jesus builds, rules, and sustains his church on earth.
Therefore, based on where we’ve been, it’s no surprise that the church in Acts gives themselves wholly to God’s word in all they are and seek to accomplish. That leads me to one last observation: Scripture, as God’s word, is how the risen Lord Jesus builds, rules, and sustains his church on earth.
In Ezekiel 37, the Lord compares Israel to a valley of dry bones. That’s how dead they are without God’s initiative. Then the Lord commands his prophet to prophecy over the dry bones, “Hear the word of the Lord.” It’s in hearing the word of the Lord that the bones awaken and come to life and form a new people.
That’s what happens in the book of Acts as the word of God advances among people who are spiritually dead. Peter preaches the word in Acts 2; and the Spirit awakens people to faith. Those who receive the word get baptized (Acts 2:40-41). Later Peter preaches the word of God to Cornelius and some other Gentiles (Acts 11:1). They come alive and become God’s people too. Jesus builds his church with his word.
Then he rules the church with his word. Listen to these examples—I’ll give you just a smattering from Acts. In 1:16, the word leads Peter to re-establish the Twelve. In 2:42, the church devotes themselves to the apostles’ teaching. In 4:28, the word of God guides their prayer for boldness. In 4:31 and a dozen others,[ix] the church spreads the word in evangelism. In 6:2, we encounter the situation with the widows; and the apostles emphasize the necessity to prioritize the word’s teaching. In 13:47, God’s word in Isaiah compels the mission of the church to the nations. In 15:15, a quotation from Amos 9 gives the decisive verdict on the church’s theology. In 20:7, the church stays awake all night to receive Paul’s instruction in the word. In 20:26, Paul urges pastors to care for the church with steady admonishments in the word of grace. In 23:5, Paul applies Exodus 22:28 to explain why he shouldn’t speak evil of a ruler of his people.
I could go on, but the point is clear. Jesus rules his church on earth by God’s word in Scripture. Everything we give ourselves to ought to be ruled by the word of God, governed by Scripture, informed by God’s truth. It’s him we live for. He saved us for himself, to know him and enjoy him and walk with him and love his ways…
But don’t forget this in the process: the word by which Jesus rules us is the same word by which he sustains us to the end. To what does Paul commend the church in 20:32? “I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” The word is powerful to give you the inheritance—that’s the inheritance in glory with Jesus. The word of grace will get you there. Is it in you? Do you cherish it?
Let the points we’ve reviewed today renew your love for Scripture, and your pursuit to know all God has revealed about himself. Meditate on Scripture day and night. Far be it from us to champion Sola Scriptura and then live like it doesn’t matter. Far be it from us to echo Scripture alone and then never soak in the Bible all week and have it written on our hearts and compelling our lives.
Here are the Creators words to his creatures. Here are the Lord’s orders for his servants. Here is the King’s decree for his citizens. Here is the Shepherd’s call for his sheep. Here is the Physicians prescription for the sick and dying. Here is the Rock when racked with uncertainty. Here is Truth when facing a pack of lies. Here is the Father’s counsel to his beloved children. Here is your Husband’s love-song to his Bride. Won’t you listen to him sing it over you? Oh, they are good words, beloved.
Give yourself to the word of God, Redeemer. “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut 8:3). Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).
[i]Regarding Scripture and sacred tradition Vatican II still states: “Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to the church…It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” Walter M. Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican II, trans. Joseph Gallagher (New York: American, 1966), 117, 118.
[ii]Martin Luther, The Misuse of the Mass, in LW 36:136-37. Quotation taken from Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 40.
[iii]Martin Luther, Defense and Explanation of All the Articles, in LW 32:11-12. Quotation taken from Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 40.
[iv]Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 23.
[vi]Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2.
[vii]That wording comes from 2 Timothy 3:15, by the way. The sacred writings are powerful to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
[viii]Psalm 19—the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim his handiwork. Romans 1:20—God’s eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived…in the things that have been made. Regarding the conscience, see Acts 17:22-28; Rom 1:32; 2:14-16.
[ix]See also Acts 5:20, 42; 8:4; 9:20; 11:19, 20; 13:5; 14:21, 25; 16:32; 17:2, 11.