Luther’s convictions can be summarized in three major issues that form the basis of the Reformation, and hence of today’s Protestantism.
1. Faith alone (sola fides)
Salvation is the gift of God, acquired through faith alone, received through God’s grace alone, (Ephesians 2:8–9; 2 Timothy 1:9), because of Christ alone. Christ’s death on the Cross, followed by His resurrection, was not only necessary but was also both complete and sufficient to pay the total penalty for our sins and thereby discharge our sin-debt to God in full (Hebrews 7:25). This is the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3–4), and there is none other that saves (Acts 4:12; Galatians 1:8). See The gospel of the Triune God: our prime concern.
Luther expressed it thus:
“Now the true meaning of Christianity is this: that a man first acknowledge through the law, that he is a sinner, for whom it is impossible to perform any good work. … Trying to merit grace by preceding works, therefore, is trying to placate God with sins, which is nothing but heaping sins on sins, making fun of God, and provoking His wrath. … Thus the first step in Christianity is the preaching of repentance and the knowledge of oneself.”
“The second step is this: If you want to be saved, your salvation does not come by works; but God has sent His only Son into the world that we might live through Him. He was crucified and died for you and bore your sins in His own body (1 Peter 2:24). … He wants to give us forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal life for the sake of Christ. For God is He who dispenses His gifts freely to all, and this is the praise of His deity. But He cannot defend this deity of His against self-righteous people who are unwilling to accept grace and eternal life from Him freely but want to earn it by their own works.”1
God has purposed that we do not merit His grace by anything we do (Galatians 2:16; 3:3). The Apostle Paul says this is for several reasons:
- “it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed …” (Romans 4:16).
- Works “nullify the grace of God”, so that if we could earn righteousness, “Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21).
- Because then “grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).
- If works were acceptable, God could owe us salvation (Romans 4:4), which He does not (Romans 3:23).
- In fact, all attempts to earn God’s favour will fail and incur God’s curse (Galatians 3:10). See Is our ‘goodness’ good enough for God?
- “… so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
- So that “we have peace with God” (Romans 5:1).
According to the Bible, believers’ sins are covered by the atoning blood of Jesus (Hebrews 9:12–14; Romans 5:9–11), never to be exposed again. The Apostle Paul says that God nailed the record of our sins to the Cross (Colossians 2:13–14). So then, on the authority of the Word of God, our sinful past no longer exists in the records of heaven. When we are forgiven, the King of kings makes us His heirs (Romans 8:17), so that believers are princes and princesses of the King of kings—not only when we get to heaven, but right here and now.
One practical aspect of this is that believers can have absolute certainty of their salvation and that they are no longer damned sinners! Why? Because our eternal destiny does not depend on how well we have performed works in this life, nor yet on our having suffered enough temporal punishment for our sins after we die. But rather because we have been declared righteous by the Eternal Judge Himself (Romans 8:1), and He has adopted us as His own sons and daughters (Romans 8:14–17).
Indeed, those who do not believe what God has said brand God a liar (1 John 5:10–12). See How do people come into a right relationship with God?
2. Scripture alone (sola Scriptura)
Sola Scriptura is the doctrine that the Bible as the Word of God is the sole infallible, authoritative, and sufficient authority in all matters of doctrine, faith, and conduct. It is based on the Apostle Paul’s statement that “All Scripture is God-breathed”, Greek: θεόπνευστος (theopneustos) in 2 Timothy 3:16–17. Thus Scripture originates from God Himself, who cannot err, and therefore the authority of Scripture is God’s error-free authority.2 See The authority of Scripture.
Sola Scriptura is important for these absolute reasons:
- It limits what God requires us to believe to what He Himself has actually said in His Word, the Bible. God has provided in the Bible, in clear, understandable, and reliable words, His full and final revelation regarding what we must believe to be saved, and all that is necessary for the Church’s mission in the world. It is infallible (see Jesus Christ and the infallibility of Scripture), binding, and authoritative today, and thus is complete as to doctrine.
Sola Scriptura negates all doctrines originated by human beings (which, sadly, increase as time goes by), and directs our attention to what God says rather than to what man formulates. Thus, God’s Word needs no supplementation from any human profundity. See From fables to truth.
In the Bible, repeatedly, God commands us humans not to add to what He has said:
- Moses, speaking for God, warned the Israelites: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)
- Moses again: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:32)
- Proverbs 30:8 admonishes: “Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you and you be found a liar.”
- Paul advised his readers “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).
- And Paul expands this to pronounce a curse (no less!) on anyone who changes the gospel he preached: “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. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8–9)
- The Bible closes with the apostle John’s dire warning: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Revelation 22:18–19).
Sola Scriptura disclaims all tradition that is not actually approved of in the Word of God, the Bible. It follows that any tradition not found in the Bible (either explicitly or by logical deduction) does not originate from God and is therefore not binding on Christians either to believe it, to fear it, or to act upon it (cf. Mark 7:13). See Is the Bible our sole final authority?.
As to development of doctrine, the guiding factor is the Bible itself. “The text of Scripture provides the grounds, and most importantly, the limits of this development over time. … no one has ever plumbed the depths of the revelation of God contained in the Bible. … Therefore, real development of Christian doctrine is simply the ever-increasing understanding of the Word of God.”3
Sola Scriptura is, in fact, the basis for CMI’s stand on biblical creation, with Genesis chapter 1 being the historical record of how God created the heavens and the earth, plant life, animal life, and then human beings in His image. Luther actually cited the Genesis creation account as an example of the clarity of Scripture. He stated:
“When Moses writes that God created heaven and earth and whatever is in them in six days, then let this period continue to have been six days, and do not venture to devise any comment according to which six days were one day. But if you cannot understand how this could have been done in six days, then grant the Holy Spirit the honour of being more learned than you are. For you are to deal with Scripture in such a way that you bear in mind that God Himself says what is written. But since God is speaking, it is not fitting for you wantonly to turn His Word in the direction you wish to go.”4,5
The canon of Scripture
By Scripture, we mean the books of the Old and New Testaments. Those in the OT were all written before Christ was born. The NT Church had the teaching of the Apostles while they were alive. Most of the NT books were written between about AD 50 and 70, with the Apostle John’s books from about AD 80 to 95, so all the NT books were written and available to Christians well before the Church Council of AD 397.
New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce has written:
“The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognising their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. … what [Church] councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.”6
One practical aspect of all this today is the involvement of all Christians in reading the Bible for themselves, and hence the need for translations of the Bible to be available in their own vernacular languages.
3. The priesthood of all believers
In the Old Testament, priests were needed to offer daily sacrifices, which foreshadowed the perfect sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:11–12). In the New Testament, the Apostle Peter and the writer of Hebrews tell us that now that Christ has paid the full penalty for sin, no further sacrifices are needed. Here are some verses that tell us this (emphases added).
- “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh” (1 Peter 3:18).
- “[Christ] has no need like those high priests to offer sacrifices daily … since He did this once for all when He offered up Himself” (Hebrews 7:27).
- “He entered once for all into the holy places … by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).
- “Nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly … for then He would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:25–26).
- “And just as it is appointed for man to die once … so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him.” (Hebrews 9:27–28).
- “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).
- “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God … . For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12, 14).
- “… there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18).
Thus the Bible tells us that no further sacrifices for sin are needed now, and hence no repetitions or re-enactments of the crucifixion, because Christ’s ‘once-for-all-time’ sacrifice was and is totally sufficient before Almighty God (Romans 6:9–10).
God showed His perfect satisfaction with Christ’s atonement for our sins by the Resurrection. God raised Christ up (Acts 2:24) for our justification (Romans 4:25) and so that we could be united with Him (Romans 6:5). Thus, the overcoming/undoing of sin in atonement was confirmed by Christ’s overcoming/undoing of death (sin’s consequence) in His rising from the dead. See The importance of the Resurrection of Christ to our salvation.
Note that the penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23), so God can pardon sin only when the penalty that He has pronounced has been paid. Thus, it is the death of Christ that pays the penalty for our sin and reconciles us to God, not just (drops of) His blood, unless by His blood is meant His shed blood, i.e. His death (cf. Romans 5:10). With the penalty paid, God can pardon the repentant sinner and remain righteous at the same time, as Paul writes in Romans 3:26: “It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
How then are all believers priests?
It is not in the sense that we are obliged to offer sacrifices today, but because we have direct access to God through Christ alone (1 Timothy 2:5), and thus without the necessity for any earthly intermediary priest (Hebrews 9:15; 12:24).
We are in fact joined to the resurrected Christ in a spiritual union which is profoundly real and intensely intimate (John 15:4–5). We share in God the Father’s love for His Son (John 17:26) and we reciprocate that love.
One practical aspect of this is that all Christians are called to be God’s witnesses, representatives, and ambassadors in whatever capacity or profession we find ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:18–20).
Salvation is by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, on the authority of Scripture alone, and for the glory of God alone. These principles give, to those who will accept them:
- The complete forgiveness of sins here and now (Romans 5:8–9; 10:9–10; Hebrews 10:12).
- The absolute assurance of salvation (John 5:24; 1 John 5:13), and hence peace with God and freedom from the fear of death or what happens after death (John 14:1–3; Philippians 1:21, 23; Hebrews 2:14–15).
- Union with Christ, which is God’s comprehensive and ultimate purpose for our lives, both now and for all eternity (John 14:23; 15:5; Colossians 3:4).
References and notes
- Martin Luther: Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535), Cited by Hillerbrand, H., The Protestant Reformation, Macmillan, London, pp. 87, 99–100, 1968. Return to text.
- For a fuller exposition, see Sarfati, J., “D. Russell Humphreys’ Cosmology and the ‘Timothy Test’: A Reply,” J. Creation 11(2):195–197, 1997. Return to text.
- White J., The Roman Catholic Controversy, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, 1996, p. 83. Return to text.
- What Luther says, A Practical in-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, compiled by Ewald M. Plass, Concordia, 1959, p. 93. Return to text.
- Note that the Reformers were re-establishing what the first-century church fathers believed. Return to text.
- Bruce, F.F., The Canon of the New Testament, Chapter 3 in The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable?, IVP, 1943. Return to text.