“Jesus answered and said unto [the Sadducees], Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God” ().
“Acknowledging no foundation for religious faith but the Holy Scriptures, Luther was the man for his time; through him God accomplished a great work for the reformation of the church and the enlightenment of the world.”1
In this reading, as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the great reform of the 16th century as led by Luther, we will focus on the principle, “By Scripture alone”—a fundamental concept in the great Reformation.
It was in 1503, when Luther was 20 years old, that he saw a Bible for the very first time. Over the next 20 years, he would not only master the contents of the Bible but also translate the New Testament from the Greek language into German and begin the translation of the Old Testament.
“While one day examining the books in the library of the university, Luther discovered a Latin Bible. Such a book he had never before seen. He was ignorant even of its existence. He had heard portions of the Gospels and Epistles, which were read to the people at public worship, and he supposed that these were the entire Bible. Now, for the first time, he looked upon the whole of God’s word. With mingled awe and wonder he turned the sacred pages; with quickened pulse and throbbing heart he read for himself the words of life, pausing now and then to exclaim: ‘O that God would give me such a book for myself!’—The History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, D’Aubigné b. 2, ch. 2. Angels of heaven were by his side, and rays of light from the throne of God revealed the treasures of truth to his understanding.”2
“After his return from Rome, Luther received at the University of Wittenberg the degree of doctor of divinity. Now he was at liberty to devote himself, as never before, to the Scriptures that he loved. He had taken a solemn vow to study carefully and to preach with fidelity the word of God, not the sayings and doctrines of the popes, all the days of his life. He was no longer the mere monk or professor, but the authorized herald of the Bible. He had been called as a shepherd to feed the flock of God, that were hungering and thirsting for the truth. He firmly declared that Christians should receive no other doctrines than those which rest on the authority of the Sacred Scriptures. These words struck at the very foundation of papal supremacy. They contained the vital principle of the Reformation.”3
Because of his belief in the doctrines of the Bible—and no longer in the beliefs of the papacy, Luther was excommunicated and condemned as a heretic. He was summoned more than once to appear before the Diet (the national council of German states, led by the emperor Charles V) to try to persuade him to abandon his belief in the holy Scriptures. In his solemn address to the Diet of Worms in 1521 Luther responded:
“‘Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me. Amen.’—D’Aubigné, b. 7, ch. 8.
“Thus stood this righteous man upon the sure foundation of the word of God. The light of heaven illuminated his countenance. His greatness and purity of character, his peace and joy of heart, were manifest to all. . . .”4
It was thus that the work of moral and spiritual reform was grounded in the written Word of God.
Regarding the nature and veracity of the Holy Scriptures we will consider some important factors:
1. Their divine inspiration
“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” ().
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” ().
“Seek ye out of the book of the Lord, and read: no one of these shall fail, none shall want her mate: for my mouth it hath commanded, and his spirit it hath gathered them” ().
“In His Word God has committed to men the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will.”5
2. A means of communication between God and humanity
Sacred Scripture is the voice of God speaking to us, as surely as if we were hearing it “live.” Here we find the true history of the world and especially the origin of the human race, without any shadow of doubt. Here is the record of Jesus Christ, our Saviour and His apostles and disciples as well as His church and doctrine.
Penned by 40 authors inspired by God over a period of 1,600 years, the Bible has been translated and published more than any other book in history. Portions have been translated into 2,400 different languages, the New Testament has been translated into 1,115 languages and the complete Bible has been translated into 426 languages. (Today, scholars recognize the existence of 6,900 languages worldwide, so there is more that still needs to be done.)
3. Holy Scripture is worthy of our trust
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” ().
“Thy word is truth from the beginning, and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever” (). Scripture is divine, so it cannot be equated with tradition, let alone the magisterium or the pronouncements of the high pontiff. Scripture perfectly contains the will of God and teaches sufficiently everything that a person needs to know in order to be saved. In it the mode of worship that God requires of us is detailed and fully written. Therefore, it is not lawful for anyone, not even ministers or preachers, to teach anything that is different from what Scripture now teaches us. The apostle Paul warned the believers in Galatia: “though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” ( ). The Lord gives a strict prohibition from adding or removing anything from the Word of God ( and ). It is evident that the doctrine contained in Scripture is perfect and complete in every sense. We should not consider any writings of men, however holy or perfect they may have been, as of equal value to that of the Holy Scriptures. We must not suppose that customs, majorities, antiquities, succession of times and persons, councils, decrees, or statutes could ever have the same value as the truth of God, because His eternal truth is above all else.
4. The Word of God is supreme
The Lord bids us, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” ().
The people of God must recognize human government as a divine institution, so that it will teach obedience to the authorities as a sacred duty in its legitimate sphere. However, when its claims conflict with God’s claims, God’s Word must be recognized as being above all human law. A “Thus saith the Lord” cannot be put aside or exchanged for a “Thus saith the Church or the State.” The crown of Christ must be erected above the diadems of earthly powers.
The principle we must defend at this time is the same that was maintained by the followers of the gospel in the great Reformation. When the princes met at the Diet of Spires in 1529, it seemed that the world’s hope was dying out. In that assembly, the decree of the emperor was presented, restricting religious freedom and prohibiting any further dissemination of the reformed doctrines. Would the German princes accept the decree?
Should the light of the gospel be hidden from multitudes still in darkness? Vital issues for the world were being debated. Those who had accepted the Reformed faith, met and unanimously decided, “We reject the decree. In matters of conscience, the power of the majority should not prevail.”
The banner of the truth of religious freedom, raised so prominently by those reformers, has been entrusted to us in this last conflict. We must receive it. The responsibility for this great gift rests upon those whom God has blessed with the knowledge of His Word. We must receive that Word as the supreme authority and accept the inspired truths found therein. We can appreciate them only if we search them through personal study. Then, by making the Word of God the guide of our life, the prayer of Christ in our behalf will indeed be answered: “Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth” (). The recognition of truth in words and deeds is our confession of faith. Only then will others know that we believe in the Bible.
The reformers, whose protest gave us the name “Protestants,” felt that God had called them to present the gospel to the world, and thus they were willing to sacrifice possessions, freedom, and even life for the cause they cherished. Are we, in this last conflict of the great controversy, as faithful to our legacy as the reformers were to theirs?
Even when faced with persecution and death, these brave pioneers spread everywhere the truth for that time. The Word of God was brought to the people; all classes, low and high, rich and poor, enlightened and ignorant, studied it eagerly, and those who received the light also became their messengers. In those days, the truth was often taken to people’s homes through the printed page. Luther’s pen was a force, and his writings, widely disseminated, shook the world. The same instruments are at our disposal, with a hundred times greater resources. Bibles and publications in many languages, presenting the truth for this time, are within our reach and can be quickly taken to the whole world. We must be diligent in Bible study and zealous in spreading the light!
“The Reformation did not, as many suppose, end with Luther. It is to be continued to the close of this world’s history. Luther had a great work to do in reflecting to others the light which God had permitted to shine upon him; yet he did not receive all the light which was to be given to the world. From that time to this, new light has been continually shining upon the Scriptures, and new truths have been constantly unfolding.
“Luther and his colaborers accomplished a noble work for God; but, coming as they did from the Roman Church, having themselves believed and advocated her doctrines, it was not to be expected that they would discern all these errors. It was their work to break the fetters of Rome and to give the Bible to the world; yet there were important truths which they failed to discover, and grave errors which they did not renounce. Most of them continued to observe the Sunday with other papal festivals. They did not, indeed, regard it as possessing divine authority, but believed that it should be observed as a generally accepted day of worship. There were some among them, however, who honored the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. Among the reformers of the church an honorable place should be given to those who stood in vindication of a truth generally ignored, even by Protestants—those who maintained the validity of the fourth commandment and the obligation of the Bible Sabbath. When the Reformation swept back the darkness that had rested down on all Christendom, Sabbathkeepers were brought to light in many lands.
“Those who received the great blessings of the Reformation did not go forward in the path so nobly entered upon by Luther. A few faithful men arose from time to time to proclaim new truth and expose long-cherished error, but the majority, like the Jews in Christ’s day, or the papists in the time of Luther, were content to believe as their fathers believed, and to live as they lived. Therefore religion again degenerated into formalism; and errors and superstitions which would have been cast aside had the church continued to walk in the light of God’s Word, were retained and cherished. Thus the spirit inspired by the Reformation gradually died out, until there was almost as great need of reform in the Protestant churches as in the Roman Church in the time of Luther. There was the same spiritual stupor, the same respect for the opinions of men, the same spirit of worldliness, the same substitution of human theories for the teachings of God’s Word. Pride and extravagance were fostered under the guise of religion. The churches became corrupted by allying themselves with the world. Thus were degraded the great principles for which Luther and his fellow laborers had done and suffered so much.
“As Satan saw that he had failed to crush out the truth by persecution, he again resorted to the same plan of compromise which had led to the great apostasy and the formation of the church of Rome. He induced Christians to ally themselves, not now with pagans, but with those who, by their worship of the god of this world, as truly proved themselves idolaters.
“Satan could no longer keep the Bible from the people; it had been placed within the reach of all. But he led thousands to accept false interpretations and unsound theories, without searching the Scriptures to learn the truth for themselves. He had corrupted the doctrines of the Bible, and traditions which were to ruin millions were taking deep root. The church was upholding and defending these traditions, instead of contending for the faith once delivered to the saints.”6
“The infidel Voltaire once boastingly said: ‘I am weary of hearing people repeat that twelve men established the Christian religion. I will prove that one man may suffice to overthrow it.’ Generations have passed since his death. Millions have joined in the war upon the Bible. But it is so far from being destroyed, that where there were a hundred in Voltaire’s time, there are now ten thousand, yes, a hundred thousand copies of the book of God. In the words of an early Reformer concerning the Christian church, ‘The Bible is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.’ Saith the Lord: ‘No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn’ ().
“‘The word of our God shall stand forever.’ ‘All His commandments are sure. They stand fast for ever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness’ (7; ). Whatever is built upon the authority of man will be overthrown; but that which is founded upon the rock of God’s immutable word shall stand forever.”
“Everything is tainted and corrupted with falsehood and fiction in this age. We want now solid truth for our foundation. Men and women are asleep. Youth are enchanted, infatuated with the false. They lay upon the foundation hay, wood, and stubble which the fires of the last day will consume. The mind will be of the same character as the food is composed of upon which it has been fed. There is only one remedy; that is, to become conversant with the Scriptures. We cannot study the Bible too much. Christ said, ‘Search the Scriptures;’ but the natural heart would search everything else rather than the Scriptures.”8
“We are all building for eternity. Let the character have the impress of the divine in pure, noble utterances, in upright deeds. Then the whole universe of heaven will behold and say, Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . The great, grand structure may be going up for time and for eternity. That building must stand the final inspection. Is the foundation sure? Is it built upon the doing of the Word of God? The Word of God warns everyone, Take heed how ye build. Make sure that the foundation is laid on the solid rock.”9