Most of you have at least heard the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man?” and the answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
But that’s about all that any of us remember of the catechism that has taught young Puritans and Presbyterians the basics of our Faith for the past 370 years. Does anyone remember Question 2?
“What rule has God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?” And the answer: “The Word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.”
Our catechism was certainly a product of the Reformation. But the Reformation started in earnest when Martin Luther grasped that principle. Others had tried to reform the church before and many had paid with their lives.
But when Luther – who was a Roman Catholic monk at the time – started to study the Bible, he found himself troubled by doctrines and practices that were at odds with Scripture. Many of those doctrines and practices were based on traditions – or teachings of the Church.
Luther was especially offended by the practice of selling indulgences – credits to reduce time spent in Purgatory – as a way to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. That is what drove him to post his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg.
With the help of Guttenberg’s recent invention – the printing press – the Reformation was on in a big way.
And Scripture Alone was the central pillar of it. We can say that because Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, and For the Glory of God Alone are all taught to us by Scripture.
Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the people of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
God-breathed. The Greek word for breath is the same word for Spirit, and that’s no coincidence. All Scripture is Spirit-driven. The Spirit moved in people to write what they wrote. As breath comes into us and works its way into every cell in our bodies, the Spirit filled every aspect of the writers’ lives in such a way that Scripture is the Word of God in the words of people. It is reliable. It can be trusted.
And it has power. The Spirit accompanies the Word as it enters us – so the Word can get into every aspect of our lives. It can transform us.
“So that the people of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That’s all-inclusive. As the answer to Question 3 of the catechism tells us, Scripture teaches us what we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of us. In other words, that’s pretty much all we need to know for salvation and a life of worship and service.
Or as the Reformers first declared in the 16th century, Scripture is “Our only rule of faith and practice.”
As much as we love our Creeds and Confessions – including the Shorter Catechism – they rank below Scripture, because they are derived from Scripture. When our church officers are ordained or installed, they must agree that our Creeds and Confessions are “reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do.”
While they are part of our tradition and our church’s teaching – they are only human efforts to systematize what God teaches us and commands us in Scripture – so they are subordinate to Scripture.
Which is just what Luther and the other Reformers wanted. They kept pointing people to Scripture and away from human authorities. The Roman Catholic Church has always acknowledged that Scripture is God-breathed, but the Reformers taught that Scripture is self-sufficient. They even professed that we should use Scripture to understand Scripture – that no passage should be taken out of its context.
So they would have said that Creeds or Confessions could be helpful, but they would insist that Scripture is sufficiently clear for people to understand what they need to know – with the help of the Holy Spirit. Before the Reformation, people were told that they needed a priest to explain to them what a passage meant. Luther attacked that idea boldly, saying, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it”.
To protect the Church’s control over their understanding, the Church would not allow the Scriptures to be translated into the languages of the people. William Tyndale went to the stake for translating the Bible into English.
So the Bible is sufficient by itself. Tradition does not trump Scripture. But for some reason, we let it.
How many wise men came to bring gifts to Jesus? Tradition says three. The Bible just says Magi – plural – so there were at least two. Perhaps many more.
Where in the Bible does it say, “God helps those who help themselves”? Nowhere – it was British political scientist Algernon Sydney who said that. Benjamin Franklin quoted it – so he often gets the credit.
The Bible is sufficient by itself. Popular trends do not trump Scripture. But for some reason, we let them.
We are told to “Look out for number one.” That expression has been with us for decades. But Jesus tells us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
Where in the Bible does it say that Caucasians are the crown glory of God’s creation? Nowhere. But the white supremacists claim it to be true – and twist Scripture into a pretzel to support their views.
The Bible is sufficient by itself. Church authority does not trump Scripture. But for some reason, we let it.
Over the years, organized religion has tried, but God’s faithful people have fought back with Scripture.
The Council of Trent declared in the mid-16th century that any Catholic who believed in salvation through faith alone was subject to excommunication. The Catholic Church has since modified its position – and now encourages people to read and study the Bible.
Many in the Protestant Reich Church in Nazi Germany openly supported Adolph Hitler, tried to remove the Old Testament from the Bible, and defrocked pastors who were of Jewish descent or were married to non-Aryans. Karl Barth and others in the Confessing Church challenged them with Scripture – but the Holocaust still happened, because not enough others knew and trusted Scripture enough to stand up to Hitler.
And that’s my concern today. Do we know Scripture enough and trust it enough to take a stand on it? Or will we defer to tradition, trends, and Church authority because we do not know well enough what Scripture teaches or because we lack confidence in it?
What happens when the culture stops being indifferent and dismissive toward our faith and becomes openly hostile toward it? Or the forces of hatred and bigotry are emboldened by their successes? Or those who speak for the Church cease to speak for Jesus Christ?
When Luther was called before the Diet of Worms – an assembly of the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire – to recant or affirm his teachings, he beautifully and boldly replied:
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.
Chris Anderson wrote in a devotional entitled “Gutenberg & Luther” points out that Paul – after reminding Timothy that all Scripture is God-breathed and can equip God’s people for every good work, commands Timothy a few verses later to “preach the Word” – and nothing else. Paul is about to die, and Timothy was to be one of those who carried on the work.
Are we prepared to carry on the work? Will we or can we – like Luther – stand on the Word of God?
Or do we need to spend more time with Scripture – opening ourselves up to have the Word breathed into us, equipping us for every good work?