Luther on the Authority and Clarity of Scripture

October 27, 2017

[Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of the event that many cite as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther’s nailing 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. While the Theses primarily address the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, the underlying issue was the relative authority of Scripture and the Roman Church. The issue of the authority of Scripture remains of vital importance today; we’ll focus on it this coming Sunday as we celebrate 500 years of the Reformation.  To honor Luther’s role in the recovery of Scriptural authority, here are some of his own words on this topic – Coty]

[When Luther was under trial in the city of Worms for his writings, after being commanded to recant:]

I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

[Luther’s enemies mocked him for this stance, yet clearly recognized his position on Scripture. Here is part of the Edict of Worms, the final judgment from that trial:]

This devil in the habit of a monk has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle and has invented new ones. . . . His teaching makes for rebellion, division, war, murder, robbery, arson, and the collapse of Christendom. He lives the life of a beast. . . . We have labored with him, but he recognizes only the authority of Scripture.

[Luther was the first to translate the Bible into German. He wrote these words on the flyleaf of a German Bible:]

God will not be seen, known, or comprehended except through his Word alone. Whatever therefore one undertakes for salvation apart from the Word is in vain. God will not respond to that. He will not have it. He will not tolerate any other way. Therefore, let his Book in which He speaks to you be commended to you. For he did not cause it to be written to no purpose. He did not want us to let it lie there in neglect, as if he were speaking with mice under the bench or with flies on the pulpit. We are to read it, to think and speak about it, and to study it, certain that He Himself, not an angel or a creature, is speaking with us in it.

[Luther’s response to Erasmus’ claim that Scripture is obscure. From Bondage of the Will:]

God and his Scriptures are two things, just as the Creator and his creation are two things. Now, nobody questions that there is a great deal hid in God of which we know nothing. . . . But the notion that in Scripture . . . all is not plain was spread by the godless [without evidence.] . . . And Satan has used these unsubstantial specters to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of its value, so as to ensure that his own poisonous philosophy reigns supreme in the church. I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their subject, but to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing all the contents of Scripture. For what solemn truth can the Scriptures still be concealing, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb, and the greatest of all mysteries brought to light—that Christ, God’s Son, became man, that God is Three in One, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign forever? Are not these things known, and sung in our streets? Take Christ from the Scriptures—and what more will you find in them? . . .

The profoundest mysteries of the supreme Majesty are no [longer] hidden away, but are now brought out of doors and displayed to public view. Christ has opened our understanding, that we might understand the Scriptures, and the Gospel is preached to every creature. . . . I know that to many people a great deal remains obscure; but that is due, not to any lack of clarity in Scripture, but to their own blindness and dullness, in that they make no effort to see truth which, in itself, could not be plainer. . . . They are like men who . . . go from daylight into darkness, and hide there and then blame . . . the darkness of the day for their inability to see. . . .

The truth is that nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures. All men have their hearts darkened, so that, even when they can discuss and quote all that is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know any of it. They do not believe in God, nor do they believe that they are God’s creatures, nor anything else. . . . The Spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture.

[From Luther‘s exposition of Psalm 45:4, delivered as a lecture to his students. He here comments on the words “go forth and reign” (translated “ride out victoriously” in the ESV):]

Everywhere there is nothing but misfortune: outside they persecute the Word; among us they despise and neglect it; pastors almost die of hunger and receive no other reward for their godly labors than ingratitude and hatred. Where is the prosperity here? Certainly only in the spirit.

Therefore rouse yourself. Do not give in to evils, but go forth boldly against them. Hold on. Do not be disheartened either by contempt or ingratitude within or by agitation and raging without. . . . It is in sorrow, when we are the closest to despair, that hope rises the highest. So today, when there is the greatest contempt and weariness with the Word, the true glory of the Word begins. Therefore we should learn to understand this verse as speaking of invisible progress and success. Our King enjoys success and good fortune even though you do not see it. Moreover, it would not be expedient for us to see this success, for then we would be puffed up. Now, however, he raises us up through faith and gives us hope. Even though we see no fruit of the Word, still we can be certain that fruit will not be wanting but will certainly follow; for so it is written here. Only we should not be discouraged when we look at present circumstances that disturb us, but we should much rather look at these promises.


By Grace Alone

October 19, 2017

[As we approach the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, consider one of the key points of the Reformation: We are saved by God’s grace alone. Here is a shortened and edited version of my sermon on Galatians 1:6-12 on this theme, preached April 29, 2007. You can listen to the sermon at this link – Coty]

What really angers you? Think about a time recently when you’ve been ticked off. What prompted that reaction?

When did the apostle Paul become most upset? Scripture records several such times. But the beginning of Galatians displays some of his greatest anger.

All of Paul’s letters to churches begin by stating who they are from, whom they are to, and then calling on God for a blessing of grace and peace to the church. This is usually followed by a statement thanking God for the people of that church, or praising God for the blessings He has given to that Church or to His people in general. (See, for example, Romans 1:8, 1 Corinthians 1:4, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, and Ephesians 1:3.)

But Galatians is different. After calling for grace and peace, Paul cries out:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6)

Paul is angry – and he minces no words. What has angered Paul?

Remember, in Corinth the church was tolerating a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. And when they came together for a meal around the Lord’s Supper, some were getting drunk. But even to Corinth, Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always for you.” Paul is angrier with the Galatians than with the Corinthians.

What makes Paul most upset?

The loss of the Gospel.

The Gospel was so precious to Paul that its distortion troubled him deeply. God’s glory in the Gospel is so precious to Paul that he found the perversion of the Gospel most disturbing.

Look at Paul’s summary of the Gospel in Galatians 1:4-5. The overarching theme is obvious: GOD gave Himself, GOD delivers, all according to GOD’s will, to GOD’s glory forever. God is at the center. The Gospel is all about God – His glory, His holiness, His mercy, His love. If we change the Gospel, we desert God. And Paul could not stand for that.

Let’s see how Paul elaborates on that point in verses 6-12.

The True Gospel: Called by God’s Grace

Having stated the Gospel in his intro, Paul keeps reminding his readers of its central points:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ (Galatians 1:6)

Paul could have simply said: “so quickly deserting God.” But instead he highlights the Gospel itself. The one they are deserting is:

  • The one who called them
  • The one who spoke to them with life-giving force
  • The one who miraculously touched them, when they were His enemies
  • The one whose grace and mercy are their only hope
  • The one who displayed that grace in sending Christ Jesus to die for their sins.

Paul will elaborate on this summary of the Gospel a few verses later:

[God] who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles. (Galatians 1:15-16)

The apostle’s point: There is only one Gospel. It is all about God. It is all about His grace – not our works! So be overwhelmed by that grace!

What is at Stake: Deserting God

In verse 6, Paul says the Galatians are deserting the One who called them by grace.

I think Paul’s readers were absolutely shocked by that accusation. They probably thought:

“Deserting God? Paul, we’re not deserting God – we’re trying to know Him better! These other teachers came and provided us with an alternative way of thinking. They said circumcision and the traditional Jewish ceremonies would lead us into a deeper, fuller understanding of God, into things we didn’t know before. How can you possibly say that we are deserting God?”

In that context, Paul then refers to God as the one “who called you in the grace of Christ.”

Paul emphasizes: “The Gospel is about God’s GRACE. Add ANYTHING to God’s grace, and you have left the Gospel. You have deserted God.”

Thus he says they are “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one” (Galatians 1:6-7).

There is only one Gospel.

Another teacher might label his message a gospel – but it’s not. Any message other than salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ apart from works of any kind is not Good News. Any “Christ plus” gospel is a false gospel – and to follow such a false gospel is to abandon God.

Thus, Paul calls such false teachers those who “trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:7).

By adding to faith in Christ works that we have to do – even Old Testament ceremonies – these teachers are changing the Good News into Bad News. They are turning their backs on God’s offer of Himself freely to all who believe – and thus they are changing the Gospel of God’s grace into a way to make yourself acceptable to God. This is indeed flipping the Gospel on its head. This is abandoning God.

What does Paul then say about those false teachers who are leading these Galatians astray?

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8)

To be accursed is to be eternally condemned (NIV), to be condemned to hell (NET).

These folks who look so kind, so friendly, so warm, so engaging, inviting you to a deeper knowledge of God – these lovely people deserve hell, because they are leading God’s people astray.

So Paul says, “Even if I myself came back and preached another Gospel, you should say, “Paul, go to hell for that teaching! Don’t lead us astray from the one true Gospel!”

He imagines the most glorious possible being – an angel appearing to them. And even if this angel should preach something other than salvation by grace through faith in Christ, they should say, “Angel, go to hell!”

The GOSPEL is authoritative. Not the individual. Not even an angel

As Martin Luther writes concerning these verses:

Paul subordinates himself, all preachers, all the angels of heaven, everybody     to the Sacred Scriptures. We are not masters, judges, or arbiters, but witnesses, disciples, and confessors of the Scriptures, whether we be pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, or an angel from heaven.

Paul continues:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)

There is not one gospel according to Paul, another according to Peter, and another according to John, with each stating the result of his own philosophical speculations on the nature of reality, and how man can be put right with the ineffable sovereign power. No. Paul says Jesus Himself revealed this Gospel to him – and that this is the same Gospel He lived before the twelve disciples, the same Gospel that they continue to preach. There is one Gospel, from God, not based on the authority of any man, but revealed and put into effect by God Himself.

This is GOD’s gospel – so anyone who preaches another is NOT representing God.

Thus the false teachers, despite their speaking of grace, faith, Christ, and salvation, are teaching the opposite of the true Gospel. For it is God’s grace that saves us – nothing else. That is the only possible Good News. As Philip Ryken writes:

Not everyone who calls himself a Christian serves Christ, and not everything called the gospel is the gospel. It is not mere words that save; it is the realities of the one true gospel that save.

Our salvation comes about only by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone to the glory of God alone.

The Temptation: Aim First to Please Men, not God

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

Paul’s opponents may have been claiming Paul did not tell these Gentile believers to be circumcised because he was trying to please them. They may have argued: “Paul himself is circumcised, and he even circumcises men himself on occasion.”

Was Paul a man-pleaser? Should we be man-pleasers?

Pleasing men in and of itself is not wrong.

On non-essentials we are right to remove barriers to the Gospel, as we subordinate our personal and cultural preferences to communicate the Gospel more effectively. Paul did that (1 Corinthians 9:22-23, 1 Corinthians 10:33). But we must never change the Gospel in order to please men.

Notice in verse 10 that Paul admits that he used to try to please men – when he was a Pharisee. He implies that his opponents are now acting like he did when he was a man-pleaser.

In what ways were Paul’s opponents – and we ourselves – tempted to please men rather than God? Perhaps so that:

  • We might get along with those in power by submitting to another man’s authority or reasoning
  • We might fulfill our own natural desire to take credit for our salvation, for being master of our fate
  • We might accomplish an important but secondary goal, such as unity or kindness,


What is central for you?

Are you aiming in your life for popularity? For others to think highly of you?

My friends, the central goal of the church of Jesus Christ is

  • Not about marketing,
  • Not about church growth
  • Not about making money
  • Not about gaining political power
  • Not about attaining great health
  • Not about self-esteem
  • Not about building better families
  • Not about ending poverty
  • Not about ending abortion
  • Not about ending racial discrimination

If we make any of these the central goal of the church – even those that are good, biblical goals – then we have no Gospel at all. We have become man-pleasers of one type or another. We are putting ourselves, or some other group of people, at the center – not God.

If we do that, we are not making just a little adjustment to the Gospel. Instead, like the Galatians, we are deserting God; we are distorting and destroying the Gospel.

The church of Jesus Christ exists to herald the message of the Gospel: Your creator God made you for a purpose – to show what He is like, to marvel at who He is. Yet you have despised Him, treasuring attainments and objects in this world more than Him. You deserve His wrath and condemnation. But God in His grace sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross for your sins, to pay the penalty you deserve. You can be put right with God – you can be part of his intimate family – if you will have faith in Christ, if you see Him as your treasure, your hope, your joy.

The church of Jesus Christ exists to proclaim and to live out this Gospel radically in our lives as we, overflowing with forgiveness, overflowing with grace and mercy, become His humble servants, loving God, loving man, and rejoicing in the grace of Christ that we know we don’t deserve.

Is this central for you? Not a ticket to heaven after you die – but is this what you are most passionate about, what drives you?

There is only one hope for the world. There is only one hope for YOU: The Gospel of God’s grace.

So believe and be saved: By Grace alone. Through Faith alone. In Christ Jesus alone. To the glory of God alone.