October 17, 2013

Strange Fire – The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura – Steve Lawson

by Mike Riccardi

For those who are unable to view the free live stream of the Strange Fire Conference here at Grace Community Church, I thought I would do my best to provide a written summary of the various sessions as they unfold (Session One; Session Two; Session Three; Session Four, Session Five, Session Six, Breakout Session 1, Q&A 1). I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, or if I’ll be able to do other sessions (check out Tim Challies’ blog for his coverage) But I thought a little would be better than nothing. It provides us with a helpful opportunity to interact with what is actually being said at the conference. Having said that, the following was transcribed in haste, and so please forgive any typos. I pray it’s a benefit to you.

Strange Fire

The focus of our study tonight will be another historical theology overview of a critical issue that ties in wonderfully with this entire conference. And the subject that I’ve been asked to address—and I’m happy to do so, and embrace it—is the Puritan commitment to sola Scriptura.

Arising out of the reformation of the 16th century, there sounded a trumpet blast that rallied the hearts of God’s people: sola Scriptura, which is Latin for “Scripture Alone.” It really served as the foundation for the four other solas: sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. And these five fit together as one statement of truth—one declaration of the true saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Think of a magnificent, ancient temple and a foundation upon which everything rests. That’s sola Scriptura. Everything that we believe, obey, embrace, and hold dear in the convictions of our soul is based upon this foundation of sola Scriptura. Rome said, “We accept Scripture, but it is Scripture and. Scripture and church tradition; Scripture and ecclesiastical hierarchies; Scripture and the church councils; Scripture and papal authority. And the Reformers said, coming back to the Bible, “No, it is sola Scriptura: Scripture alone.” And if anything else is added to the foundation of the church, there will be cracks in the foundation and it will not hold up the teaching and the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  At the same time, they said no to the Anabaptists and the libertines who wanted to add their dreams and visions and new revelations. They said no; it is Scripture alone.

Upon this foundation are three massive pillars, which really frame and uphold the Gospel in its most basic and elementary proposition: Sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus – salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Rome wanted to add good works and church membership and church attendance and baptism and marriage and last rites and indulgences and Mary and the treasury of merit. And they just backed up their dump truck and kept adding and adding and adding all kinds of rubbish. And the Reformers, because they came back to the Word of God—Scripture alone—they said, “No. Salvation, the one true saving Gospel, is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”

And when that is in place, and these three immovable sturdy pillars are in place, then the roof and the pinnacle over the hull that points upward is soli Deo gloria, “for the glory of God alone.” That is the entire Reformation in a nutshell. That is the entire forest in a small acorn. That is the entire matter reduced to its most minimal parts. Everything rests upon sola Scriptura.

Five Solas 2The Reformers built a wall around this foundation. There could be no intrusion, no additives, nothing augmenting this pure foundation of sola Scriptura. After they passed off the scene, the next giants to step into a long line of godly men were those known as the Puritans. The Puritan age really began in the middle of that same century, the 16th century, with the ascendance of Queen Elizabeth to the throne of England, and the removal of Bloody Mary and her reign of terror, with her Catholic beliefs, who put to death some 288 men and women that became martyrs under her reign.

After Mary’s day, there was a new day with Elizabeth on the throne. And there came a new movement, known as the Puritan movement, which sought to purify the Church of England and bring the Church back to the five solas of the Reformation. It was these Puritans who were so mightily used by God. Few movements in church history have ever been more Bible-centered than was the Puritan movement.

Tonight I want us to consider their commitment to sola Scriptura. I want to do so under three headings: it was defined by the Westminster Divines; it was deluded by the Quakers; it was defended by John Owen, England’s Calvin.

Sola Scriptura in the Scriptures

Before we begin to look at perhaps the most remarkable doctrinal statement of fidelity to the written word of God, especially its place in history, I want to set before you some distinguishing marks out of the Scripture itself. Before we get to church history, what are those distinguishing marks out of the Bible itself?

The Inspiration of Scripture

2 Timothy 3:16 – Every jot, tittle, chapter, verse, every book is God-breathed. It has come out of the mouth of God. It was not the authors who were inspired, but the Scripture that was inspired. The authors were the instruments in the hands of God who would record what God wanted them to write, using their own temperaments and vocabulary and background and experience.

Matthew 4:4 – Every word of Scripture comes out of the mouth of God. It is as though divine revelation in the Bible has come down from God above.

Hebrews 4:12 – It is living and active. This book is alive! This book has the life of God within it because it is the very breath of God. It is inspired by God.

John 6:63 – The words I am speaking to you are spirit and are life.

The Inerrancy of Scripture

Because the Bible is God-breathed, it is the Word of God. And because God is holy, God cannot lie. God is truth and so every word of God is true.

Titus 1:2 – God cannot lie. Are there some things God cannot do? Yes. God cannot sin, cannot deny Himself, cannot lie.

Hebrews 6:18 – It is impossible for God to lie.

John 17:17 -  Your word is Truth

Proverbs 30:5 – Every word of God is tested

And so we uphold, with the Puritans, the very inerrancy of the Word of God. Let God be found true, and every man a liar.

The Infallibility of Scripture

All that is recorded in Scripture must come to pass. The word of the Lord cannot fail.

Isaiah 40:8 – The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word endures forever.

Matthew 5:18 – Until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished.

John 10:35 – The Scripture cannot be broken

The Authority of Scripture

Because the word of God is inspired, infallible, inerrant, it comes with the authority of God Himself. When the Bible speaks, God speaks. And when God speaks, He speaks with sovereign authority in His Word.

Psalm 19:7 – The law of the lord is perfect. These are not the suggestions, options, or considerations of the Lord. This is the law of the Lord, and it its binding upon every man’s conscience.

Psalm 19:8 – The commandment of the Lord is pure. It is the very commandment of God to every man and every woman.

1 Thessalonians 4:15 – This we say to you by the Word of the Lord.

The Perspicuity of the Scripture

The Word of God is clear, understandable, a lucid revelation.

Matthew 22:31 – Have you not read? Do you have two eyeballs? Do you have two brain cells that are connected between your ears? Can you not process the clear revelation in the Word of God?

Matthew 19:4 – Have you not read?

God has so clearly spoken in His word that no man can render the excuse, “Well, I did not understand what God is saying.” God has not stuttered. He’s spoken with precision and accuracy, and it’s an understandable message. We need the illumination of the Spirit, yes. But any misunderstanding is the fault of man, not the Bible. He has spoken with abundant clarity.

Rome said, “The man and woman in the pew cannot understand the Bible. That’s why we won’t translate it into your language. That’s why the preaching is in Latin. That’s why we’ll tell you what to believe. You are incapable.” And that’s why the Reformers said, “No, the boy plowing the field will know more than the Pope!”

The Sufficiency of Scripture

The Word of God is able to accomplish all of God’s purposes here upon the earth as the Word of God is brought to bear upon the issues of the men in this world.

Isaiah 55:11 – God’s redemptive purposes will be carried out in this world by the Word of God which is sufficient to do all He desires to do. It is powerful to convict, to convert, to conform, to console, correct. The Word of God is powerful, more powerful than any other object than you and I will ever hold in our ends.

1 Peter 1:23 – Peter says, you’ve been born again of seed that is imperishable. There is so much light in this Book that when it’s planted in the soil of human hearts, when God causes that seed to germinate, it brings forth eternal life. This Book alone sanctifies and conforms believers into the very image of Christ.

The Immutability of Scripture

It will never change.

Psalm 119:89 – Forever O Lord your word is settled in heaven

Psalm 119:160 – Every one of your righteous ordinances is everlasting.

Right will always be right. Wrong will always be wrong. The way of salvation will forever be the way of salvation. God’s revelation is unchanging because God Himself is immutable and unchanging.

The Invincibility of Scripture

It is a superior weapon in the hand of the man or woman of God as it is wielded.

Jeremiah 23:29 – Like a fire and a hammer which shatters

Hebrews 4:12 – Sharper than a two-edged sword

What a powerfully penetrating instrument is the Word of the living God. It is an invincible weapon.

The Finality of Scripture

There is no new revelation to be given to man after the close of the canon of Scripture. We have the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

Revelation 22:18 – If anyone adds, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book.

All of these truths are inherent within this statement of sola Scriptura.

And why this is important for this conference is in the last element: the exclusive finality of revelation in the written word of God. He has brought the consummation of his message to us in the truth of His written Word.

Sola Scriptura: Defined by the Westminster Divines

As the Puritans convened in 1643, called by the English Parliament, they were called to write the doctrinal statement that would govern the land. And in 1646 they completed their draft and ratification of the Westminster Confession of Faith. There were 121 scholars, theologians, pastors, and teachers, along with another 30 key laymen.Westminster Divines They met in over 1100 sessions. And as they wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith, the shorter and the larger catechism, they began their Westminster Confession of Faith with chapter 1, entitled, “Of the Holy Scriptures.” And their doctrinal statement written those many years ago, would be even more finely tuned and advanced than what had been written 100 years earlier by the Reformers, as new challenges were being brought at that time.

It is a doctrinal statement in this first chapter that has stood the test of time and has become a restatement of what the Bible says concerning itself. Now, I want to walk us through a few of these statements so you’ll see how committed the Puritans were to sola Scriptura. I want you to see and understand what the greatest Puritan minds brought together in a statement of sola Scriptura.

And what I want you to note is in chapter 1 section 1, they begin with a statement on the cessation of any new revelation. They were determined to state that they will believe only the Bible. So please note, in the first section of chapter 1, they saw it necessary for the preserving and propagating of truth that would make the Holy Scripture to be most necessary. In other words, it has to be written down, so the message would be preserved and propagated far and wide with a uniformity of statement.

“Those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.” This is front-loaded at the very outset. No wiggle room. These Puritan divines who gathered perhaps the greatest generation of believers in the UK, began with this cessationist statement.

In section 2 they speak of the Inspiration and the Authority of Scripture. “All Holy Scriptures which are given by inspiration of God” not God and man, not inspiration by man, but inspiration of God. 100% pure, unadulterated, unvarnished truth of the mind and will of God revealed to man. Then it concludes, “to be the rule of faith and life.” It has the authority over our lives to rule us, to govern us, to dictate to us, which we gladly would submit to.

In the third section, they were careful to state that the Apocrypha are not included in the canon of Scripture. “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of scripture.” They recognized that it is contained within the 66 books of the Bible, 39 in the Old, 27 in the New.

The fourth section reads, “The Authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed…” Its ruling power over the lives of men and women is manifest.

In the sixth section, we read of its sufficiency. “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life is in Scripture.” No need to look anywhere else. No need to have anything else added. No appendices needed. They affirm the Scriptures that I have already read to you, that all things necessary for salvation and sanctification, for the glory of God is found in our Bible.  In this sixth section also is another cessationist statement: “Nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.” Do not be bringing your “Thus says the Lord” into this house if it’s not found in chapter and verse.

Numbers seven and nine deal with the perspicuity of Scripture. “Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other.” Everything you need to know to be saved is clearly stated in the Bible. Everything you need to know to follow the will of God is clearly stated in this Book. Everything you need to live in such a way to bring honor and glory to God is spelled out with crystal clear clarity is spelled out in this Book. It’s not hard to understand, it’s just hard to swallow.

In this same section: “Not only the learned, but the unlearned…may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” If there is any veil, it’s not over the Scripture, but over the darkened minds of men.

Section 9, continuing with perspicuity: “The infallible rule of the interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself.” Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. If unclear in one place, abundantly clear in another. The Bible never contradicts itself. Thomas Watson said, “As only a diamond can cut a diamond, so Scripture interprets Scripture.”

Number 10 is a final summation of the authority of the Scripture. “The supreme judge by which all controversies are to be determined and…examined…can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” Not speaking in your revelations, in your dreams and visions, in your tongues. Speaking in the Scripture alone. And the Word of God will be the highest arbitrator in all matters in the life of the church.

The church has always been the strongest when it takes this stand on the Word of God. This is always the high ground in every area of church history: when the church stands firmly on sola Scriptura. And if the church takes her foot off of sola Scriptura, she steps on the slippery slope to liberalism, agnosticism, and atheism. The high ground is sola Scriptura. Every denomination and seminary and church that goes astray, goes astray at this point. Every denomination and seminary and church that is strong in the grace of God is strong in being anchored upon sola Scriptura. It is non-negotiable. We’re not just dogmatic about this; we’re bull-dogmatic about this.

The Word of God is not up for debate.

Sola Scriptura: Deluded by the Quakers

Whenever God opens the windows of heaven to bless his people, the devil opens the gates of hell to blast. While the Puritans were meeting in Westminster in the 1640s, at exactly that same time virtually across town, the devil was doing his work. There arose a fringe group that would come to be known as the Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends. They claimed to be receiving new revelations, prophecies. And with that they were being led astray into hyper-emotionalism and mysticism.

They were led by a man named George Fox. They had their first official meeting in 1652. At the heart of the Quaker theology was this message: one can be saved apart from the Scripture. There is an inner light in all men, and this inner revelation makes salvation for all humanity possible. They call this light within “the indwelling spirit.” And they claim that the Spirit was even in unbelievers. And as they gathered together as unbelievers, they claimed that they had the Holy Spirit within them. And to walk into a Quaker worship service, there was not an ordained pastor. No one would step into the pulpit with the Word of God and expound and proclaim. They would all sit and would be encouraged to meditate. And as you would feel prompted, you may just stand up and speak, and give direction to everyone else’s lives. Women were encouraged to stand up as well and to preach to the men.

Lawson Preaching 2And out of this commitment to be “open and uncautious” to continuing revelation by the Spirit, they were led into all kinds of mystical experiences and bizarre patterns, not the least of which was going naked as a sign. In June of 1654, two Quaker women visited Oxford in order to bring the Quaker message to the university town. They began to preach to the students at Oxford, to warn the students of the evils of study, and to give their minds to the intellectual world of academia, and to the study of the bible. And they sought to persuade them that all they needed was the inner light given by the Holy Spirit. They didn’t need the library, the classroom, or the professors. God would just speak to them inside their spirit. That message fell on deaf ears.

One of these women unclothed herself, walked around Oxford half naked, bare-breasted, claiming it was a sign of judgment against the hypocritical students. Such a bizarre act clearly shows the inherent tendency in their movement to exalt what they thought was the HS, but to go off into irrational patterns of behavior.

What is more bizarre than running around half naked is the outlandish claims and freakish actions of so many in today’s Charismatic movement. What we saw during the Q&A today is more bizarre than these women who walked around naked.

“What do you need? Start creating it. Start speaking about it. Start speaking it into being. Speak to your bill fold: ‘You big thick bill fold full of money.’ Speak to your checkbook. Say, ‘You checkbook, you, you’ve never been so prosperous since I owned you! You’re just jammed full of money aren’t you?’” That’s not all that was jammed full of something.

Kenneth Copeland: “You don’t have a God in you, you are one! Don’t be disturbed when people accuse you of thinking you’re God. Pray to yourself!” That is beyond running around naked. “You have the same creative faith inside of you that God used when He created the heavens and the earth!” “God is a being that stands somewhere around 6 foot, 2 inches tall.” There’s a high view of God for you. “I don’t preach doctrine.” Well we believe you on that. I mean we’re walking forward on that one. “I don’t preach doctrine, I preach faith.” Yeah, faith in yourself, and faith in the devil.

Kenneth Hagen: “The believer is as much an incarnation as was Jesus Christ.”

Fred Price: “Have a Rolls Royce faith.”

Benny Hinn: “Are you ready for some real revelation knowledge? You are God! Christians are little Messiahs. Christians are like gods. Never ever ever go to the Lord and say, ‘If it be Thy will.’ We Christians possess power in our mouths to heal and kill just as witches possess it. We are little Messiahs, everything that Jesus ever was.”

I’m telling you, you take one step off of sola Scriptura, and you have put your foot on a theological banana peel. It’s inevitable. You’re headed down, down, down, until you crash at the bottom. That’s what this Quaker movement was about. There was a reason why they called them Quakers. Because in their services they were given to all of this shaking. In fact, in the Colonies, they were called Shakers.

Sola Scriptura: Defended by John Owen

It was by no coincidence that on that very same campus at Oxford University, sitting as the vice-chancellor, placed there by Oliver Cromwell, presiding over all of the academia of the prestigious Oxford University, was the towering intellect and theological genius of John Owen. God had him there. And if anyone could dissect Quaker theology, it would be the great Puritan John Owen.

He was the person al chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. John Owen Addressed Parliament. This brilliant man gave himself to combat this Charismatic emotional departure from sola Scriptura with its new revelations. And Owen affirmed the deeper issue, which was sola Scriptura.

It would be in 1659 that Owen responded by writing one of his most important works: A Defense of Sacred Scripture against the Fanatics. I want to zone in on chapter 3, entitled, “On the Perfection of Scripture.” And Owen will state his case for the lunacy of the charismatic excesses based upon the sure foundation of the perfection of the Word of God.

Calvin, a century earlier, would address this very same issue with the Anabaptists and Libertines, with theological precision, by tying together the Word and the Spirit. John Owen would take his stand upon a different defense. He chose to argue the perfection of the written Word of God as it is from Genesis to Revelation—that it has everything that the church or any believer would ever need in their spiritual lives. It’s already in the Bible, nothing to be added. It’s perfect as it stands. And any attempt to add or augment the written Word of God is actually an attack against the perfection of Scripture.

John Owen PortraitJohn Owen began his defense with this statement: “The Scriptures are the settled, ordinary [as opposed to extraordinary], perfect [it cannot be improved upon], and unshakable rule for divine worship and human obedience, in such a fashion that leaves no room for any other, and no scope for any new revelations whereby man may be better instructed in the knowledge of God and our required duty.” It leaves no room for any new revelations. If you are seeking any of these Charismatic new-revelations, it is because you have no understanding of the perfection of the written Word of God.

Owen says, “What is the practical use for Scripture if it is so incomplete so as to need poor mortal men to be adding to it? Where is its perfection?” If you’re adding to it, you’re stating that it’s not perfect as it is.

Owen then lists 7 consecutive paragraphs as he walks through this defense.

  1. Sufficiency: “God has revealed in the Bible everything that is needful for our salvation and to enable us to worship Him.”
  2. Perspicuity: “All of this is revealed in the books of the Bible, whether expressly laid out there, or deducible.” God knows how to communicate. And what he’s said is abundantly clear.
  3. Finality: “There is absolutely no room…for new revelations.” That’s exactly how Revelation concludes in Rev 22:18. That is a serious warning.
  4. “It is most supreme arrogance and pride for mere men to propose novel matters of faith or practice not revealed by God in His Word.” What God has said to everyone, He says to you.
  5. “As the teachings of the fanatics contain matter alien to the Scriptures…we may shun them as diabolical, useless, groundless, and false.”
  6. “This inner light…would divert attention from the perfection of the Bible.”
  7. “The Bible is a complete and perfect rule. Since the completion of the canon, there have been no new revelations, and so none are to be expected or admitted.” “If the Scriptures are perfect and complete, then what need do we have for new revelations and uncontrolled enthusiasm?”

“All of these ways”—referring to the abuses of the Quakers with the inner light, new revelation, mystical, intuitive, subjective impulses—“are uncertain, dangerous, useless, and totally unnecessary. … They must be rejected and shunned.”

Stephen Westcott: “If John Owen was to view the scene of the church today, if he was to see the craving and the lusting for new revelation beyond the Bible, it would all come back to the root cause of being unpersuaded of the perfection of the written Word of God.”

Conclusion

1662 is a year that will live in infamy in church history. In 1662, two years after Charles II came back to restore the monarchy in England, as the Puritans were trying to purify the Church of England and spread sola Scriptura throughout the United Kingdom, the English Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity:  that every preacher in the Church of England must subscribe to the prescribed public prayers and ways of worship. You must sign on. And the Puritans’ conscience was bound to sola Scriptura. And on August 24, 1662, one of the darkest days of all of church history, 2,000 Puritan preachers were put out of their pulpits in the Great Ejection. They were forced out, and two years later the Conventicle Act was passed by Parliament, which banned them from preaching in the open air. And then the Five Mile Act, which kept them from coming within 5 miles of any city. And when it would come time for them to die, even their bodies could not be buried within the city limits or within the church cemeteries.

IMG_0493Whenever I go to London, the first place I go is to Smithfield, to stand where John Rogers were burned at the stake by Bloody Mary. And then, it’s a very short distance to Bunhill Fields, where the Puritans were buried, outside the city limits. It was a sign of rejection, repudiation. They were considered as Christ, crucified outside the city. Bunhill Field is now within the city of London, but in that day it was an ignominious sign of total rejection. And as you walk in, there you see the tomb of John Owen. There you see the tomb of John Bunyan, who wrote that classic Pilgrim’s Progress. There you see the tomb of Isaac Watts. Thomas Goodwin, other Puritan giants, many of whom have no headstones, who are just stacked one upon another, as they died in anonymity. They were willing to pledge their life and their death on sola Scriptura.

May we here tonight have a cessation-clause in our personal statement of faith. May we be not given to the excesses of this age. May we stand on the Word of God and the Word of God alone. May it regulate our lives, our preaching, our worship, our fellowship, our ministries, and our steps, as we hasten to the grave. May the Word of God and the Word of God only be our rule of faith and our standard for what it is true in this world. May God give us much grace to stand upon the Word of God.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.