Preacher: Do You Have A Theology of Preaching?

“A Theology of Preaching”

By Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.,

“Preach the word!” That simple imperative frames the act of preaching as an act of obedience (see 2 Tim. 4:2, NIV). That is where any theology of preaching must begin.

Preaching did not emerge from the church’s experimentation with communication techniques. The church does not preach because preaching is thought to be a good idea or an effective technique. The sermon has not earned its place in Christian worship by proving its utility in comparison with other means of communication or aspects of worship. Rather, we preach because we have been commanded to preach.

Preaching is a commission—a charge. As Paul stated boldly, it is the task of the minister of the gospel to “preach the Word, … in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2,  NIV). Paul begins with the humble acknowledgment that preaching is not a human invention but a gracious creation of God and a central part of His revealed will for the church. Furthermore, preaching is distinctively Christian in its origin and practice. Other religions may include teaching, or even public speech and calls to prayer. However, the preaching act is sui generis, a function of the church established by Jesus Christ.

As John A. Broadus stated: “Preaching is characteristic of Christianity. No other religion has made the regular and frequent assembling of groups of people, to hear religious instruction and exhortation, an integral part of divine worship” (John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, rev. Vernon L. Stanfield. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979, iv.). The importance of preaching is rooted in Scripture and revealed in the unfolding story of the church. The church has never been faithful when it has lacked fidelity in the pulpit. In the words of P. T. Forsyth: “With preaching Christianity stands or falls, because it is the declaration of the gospel” (P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964, 5).

The church cannot but preach lest it deny its own identity and abdicate its ordained purpose. Preaching is communication, but not mere communication. It is human speech, but much more than speech. As Ian Pitt-Watson notes, preaching is not even “a kind of speech communication that happens to be about God” (Ian Pitt-Watson, A Primer for Preachers. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986, 14). Its ground, its goal, and its glory are all located in the sovereign will of God.

The act of preaching brings forth a combination of exposition, testimony, exhortation, and teaching. Still, preaching cannot be reduced to any of these, or even to the sum total of its individual parts combined.

The primary Greek form of the word “preach” (kērusso) reveals its intrinsic rootage in the kerygma—the gospel itself. Preaching is an inescapably theological act, for the preacher dares to speak of God and, in a very real sense, for God. A theology of preaching should take trinitarian form, reflecting the very nature of the self-revealing God. In so doing, it bears witness to the God who speaks, the Son who saves, and the Spirit who illuminates.

The God Who Speaks

True preaching begins with this confession: we preach because God has spoken. That fundamental conviction is the fulcrum of the Christian faith and of Christian preaching. The Creator God of the universe, the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Lord chose of His own sovereign will to reveal Himself to us. Supreme and complete in His holiness, needing in nothing and hidden from our view, God condescended to speak to us—even to reveal Himself to us.

As Carl F. H. Henry suggests, revelation is “a divinely initiated activity, God’s free communication by which He alone turns His personal privacy into a deliberate disclosure of His reality” (Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, Vol. 2. Waco: Word Books, 1976, 17). In an act of holy graciousness, God gave up His comprehensive privacy that we might know Him. God’s revelation is the radical claim upon which we dare to speak of God—He has spoken!

Our God-talk must therefore begin and end with what God has spoken concerning Himself. Preaching is not the business of speculating about God’s nature, will, or ways, but is bearing witness to what God has spoken concerning Himself. Preaching does not consist of speculation but of exposition.

The preacher dares to speak the Word of truth to a generation which rejects the very notion of objective, public truth. This is not rooted in the preacher’s arrogant claim to have discovered worldly wisdom or to have penetrated the secrets of the universe. To the contrary, the preacher dares to proclaim truth on the basis of God’s sovereign self-disclosure. God has spoken, and He has commanded us to speak of Him.

The Bible bears witness to itself as the written Word of God. This springs from the fact that God has spoken. In the Old Testament alone, the phrases “the Lord said,” “the Lord spoke,” and “the word of the Lord came” appear at least 3,808 times (As cited in Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Authority. London: InterVarsity Press, 1958, 50). This confession brings the preacher face to face with Scripture as divine revelation. The authority of Scripture is none other than the authority of God Himself. As the Reformation formula testifies, “where Scripture speaks, God speaks.” The authority of the preacher is intrinsically rooted in the authority of the Bible as the church’s Book and the unblemished Word of God. Its total truthfulness is a witness to God’s own holiness. We speak because God has spoken, and because He has given us His Word.

As Scripture itself records, God has called the church to speak of Him on the basis of His Word and deeds. All Christian preaching is biblical preaching. That formula is axiomatic. Those who preach from some other authority or text may speak with great effect and attractiveness, but they are preaching “another gospel,” and their words will betray them. Christian preaching is not an easy task. Those who are called to preach bear a heavy duty. As Martin Luther confessed “If I could come down with a good conscience, I would rather be stretched out on a wheel and carry stones than preach one sermon.” Speaking on the basis of what God has spoken is both arduous and glorious.

A theology of preaching begins with the confession that the God who speaks has ultimate claim upon us. He who spoke a word and brought a world into being created us from the dust. God has chosen enlivened dust—and all creation—to bear testimony to His glory.

In preaching, finite, frail, and fault-ridden human beings bear bold witness to the infinite, all-powerful, and perfect Lord. Such an endeavor would smack of unmitigated arrogance and over-reaching were it not for the fact that God Himself has set us to the task. In this light, preaching is not an act of arrogance, but of humility. True preaching is not an exhibition of the brilliance or intellect of the preacher, but an exposition of the wisdom and power of God.

This is possible only when the preacher stands in submission to the text of Scripture. The issue of authority is inescapable. Either the preacher or the text will be the operant authority. A theology of preaching serves to remind those who preach of the danger of confusing our own authority with that of the biblical text. We are called, not only to preach, but to preach the Word.

Acknowledging the God who speaks as Lord is to surrender the preaching event in an act of glad submission. Preaching thus becomes the occasion for the Word of the Lord to break forth anew. This occasion itself represents the divine initiative, for it is God Himself, and not the preacher, who controls His Word.

John Calvin understood this truth when he affirmed that “The Word goeth out of the mouth of God in such a manner that it likewise goeth out of the mouth of men; for God does not speak openly from heaven but employs men as His instruments” (John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah [55:11], Corpus Reformatorum 37.291, cited in Ronald S. Wallace, “The Preached Word as the Word of God,” in Readings in Calvin’s Theology, ed. Donald McKim. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984, 231). Calvin understood preaching to be the process by which God uses human instruments to speak what He Himself has spoken. This He accomplishes through the preaching of Scripture under the illumination and testimonium of the Holy Spirit. God uses preachers, Calvin offered, “rather than to thunder at us and drive us away” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.1.5, tr. Floyd Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960, 1018). Further, “it is a singular privilege that He deigns to consecrate to Himself the mouths and toungues [sic] of men in order that His voice may resound in them” (Ibid).

Thus, preaching springs from the truth that God has spoken in word and deed and that He has chosen human vessels to bear witness to Himself and His gospel. We speak because we cannot be silent. We speak because God has spoken.

The Son Who Saves

“In the past,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe” (Heb. 1:1–2, NIV). The God who reveals Himself (Deus Revelatus) has spoken supremely and definitively through His Son.

Carl F. H. Henry once stated that only a theology “abreast of divine invasion” could lay claim upon the church. The same holds true for a theology of preaching. All Christian preaching is unabashedly Christological.

Christian preaching points to the incarnation of God in Christ as the stackpole of truth and the core of Christian confession. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). Thus, preaching is itself an act of grace, making clear God’s initiative toward us in Christ. Preaching is one means by which the redeemed bear witness to the Son who saves. That message of divine salvation, the unmerited act of God in Christ, is the criterion by which all preaching is to be judged.

With this in mind, all preaching is understood to be rooted in the incarnation. As the apostle John declared, God spoke to us by means of His Son, the Word, and that Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (1:14). All human speech is rendered mute by the incarnate Word of God. Yet, at the same time, the incarnation allows us to speak of God in the terms He has set for Himself—in the identity of Jesus the Christ.

Preaching is itself incarnational. In the preaching event a human being stands before a congregation of fellow humans to speak the most audacious words ever encountered or uttered by the human species: God has made Himself known in His Son, through whom He has also made provision for our salvation.

As Karl Barth insisted, all preaching must have a thrust. The thrust cannot come from the energy, earnestness, or even the conviction of the preacher. “The sermon,” asserted Barth, “takes its thrust when it begins: The Word became flesh … once and for all, and when account of this is taken in every thought” (Karl Barth, Homiletics, tr. Geoffrey Bromiley and Donald W. Daniels. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991, 52). The power of the sermon does not lie in the domain of the preacher, but in the providence of God. Preaching does not demonstrate the power of the human instrument, but of the biblical message of God’s words and deeds.

Jesus serves as our model, as well as the content of our preaching. As Mark recorded in his Gospel, “Jesus came preaching” (1:14), and His model of preaching as the unflinching forth-telling of God’s gracious salvation is the ultimate standard by which all human preaching is to be judged. Jesus Himself sent His disciples out to preach repentance (Mark 6:12). The church received its charge to “preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). Preaching is, as Christ made clear, an extension of His own will and work. The church preaches because it has been commanded to do so.

If preaching takes its ground and derives its power from God’s revelation in the Son, then the cross looms as the paramount symbol and event of Christian proclamation. “We preach not ourselves,” pressed Paul, “but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). That message was centered on the cross as the definitive criterion of preaching. Paul understood that the cross is simultaneously the most divisive and the most unifying event in human history. The preaching of the cross—the proclamation of the substitutionary atonement wrought by the sinless Son of God—“is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

Any honest and faithful theology of preaching must acknowledge that charges of foolishness are not incidental to the homiletical task. They are central. Those seeking worldly wisdom or secret signs will be frustrated with what we preach, for the cross is the abolition of both. The Christian preacher dares not speak a message which will appeal to the sign-seekers and wisdom-lovers, “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). As James Denney stated plainly, “No man can give at once the impression that he himself is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.”

Beyond this, Paul indicated the danger of ideological temptations and the allure of “technique” as threats to the preaching of the gospel. Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul explained: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:4–5, NIV).

To preach the gospel of the Son who saves is to forfeit all claim or aim to make communication technique or human persuasion the measure of homiletical effectiveness. Preaching is effective when it is faithful. The effect is in the hands of God.

The preacher dares to speak for God, on the basis of what God has spoken concerning Himself and His ways, and that means speaking the word of the cross. That underscores the humility of preaching. As John Piper suggests, the act of preaching is “both a past event of substitution and a present event of execution” (John Piper, The Supremacy of Christ in Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990, 35). Only the redeemed, those who know the cross as the power and wisdom of God, understand the glory and the burden of preaching. To the world of unbelief, such words are senseless prattle.

To preach the message of the Son who saves is to spread the world’s most hopeful message. All Christian preaching is resurrection preaching. A theology of preaching includes both a “theology of the cross” and a “theology of glory.” The glory is not the possession of the church, much less the preacher, but of God Himself.

The cross brings the eclipse of all human pretensions and enlightenment, but the empty tomb reveals the radiant sunrise of God’s personal glory. If Christ has not been raised, asserted Paul, “our preaching is useless” (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV). This glimpse of God’s glory does not afford the church or the preacher a sense of triumphalism or self-sufficiency. To the contrary, it points to the sufficiency of God and to the glory only He enjoys—a glory He has shared with us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The reflection of that revelation is the radiance and glory of preaching.

The Spirit Who Illuminates

The preacher stands before the congregation as the external minister of the Word, but the Holy Spirit works as the internal minister of that same Word. A theology of preaching must take the role of the Spirit into full view, for without an understanding of the work of the Spirit, the task of preaching is robbed of its balance and power.

The neglect of the work of the Spirit is one evidence of the decline of biblical trinitarianism in our midst. Charles H. Spurgeon warned, “You might as well expect to raise the dead by whispering in their ears, as hope to save souls by preaching to them, if it were not for the agency of the Holy Spirit” (Charles H. Spurgeon, New Park Street Pulpit, 5.211). The Spirit performs His work of inspiration, indwelling, regeneration, and sanctification as the inner minister of the Word; it is the Spirit’s ministry of illumination that allows the Word of the Lord to break forth.

Both the preacher and the hearers are dependent upon the illumination granted by the Holy Spirit for any understanding of the text. As Calvin warned, “No one should now hesitate to confess that he is able to understand God’s mysteries only in so far as he is illumined by God’s grace. He who attributes any more understanding to himself is all the more blind because he does not recognize his own blindness” (Calvin, Institutes, II.2.21, 281). This has been the confession of great preachers from the first century to the present, and it will ever remain. Tertullian, for example, called the Spirit his “Vicar” who ministered the Word to himself and his congregation.

The Reformation saw a new acknowledgement of the union of Word and Spirit. This testimonium was understood to be the crucial means by which the Spirit imparted understanding. This trinitarian doctrine produced preaching that was both bold and humble; bold in its content but uttered forth by humble humans who knew their utter dependence upon God.

The same God who called forth human vessels and set them to preach also promised the power of the Spirit. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was aware that preachers often forget this promise:

Seek Him always. But go beyond seeking Him; expect Him. Do you expect anything to happen when you get up to preach in a pulpit? Or do you just say to yourself, “Well, I have prepared my address, I am going to give them this address; some of them will appreciate it and some will not”? Are you expecting it to be the turning point in someone’s life? That is what preaching is meant to do … Seek this power, expect this power, yearn for this power; and when the power comes, yield to Him (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971, 325).

To preach “in the Spirit” is to preach with the acknowledgement that the human instrument has no control over the message—and no control over the Word as it is set loose within the congregation. The Spirit, as John declared, testifies, “because the Spirit is the truth” (1 John 5:6b, NIV).

Conclusion

J. I. Packer defined preaching as “the event of God bringing to an audience a Bible-based, Christ-related, life-impacting message of instruction and direction from Himself through the words of a spokesperson” (J. I. Packer, “Authority in Preaching,” The Gospel in the Modern World, ed. Martyn Eden and David F. Wells. London: InterVarsity Press). That rather comprehensive definition depicts the process of God speaking forth His Word, using human instruments to proclaim His message, and then calling men and women unto Himself. A theological analysis reveals that preaching is deadly business. As Spurgeon confirmed, “Life, death, hell, and worlds unknown may hang on the preaching and hearing of a sermon” (Charles H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 39. London: Alabaster and Passmore, 1862–1917: 170).

The apostle Paul revealed the logic of preaching when he asked, “How, then, can they call upon the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14, NIV).

The preacher is a commissioned agent whose task is to speak because God has spoken, because the preacher has been entrusted with the telling of the gospel of the Son who saves, and because God has promised the power of the Spirit as the seal and efficacy of the preacher’s calling.

The ground of preaching is none other than the revelation which God has addressed to us in Scripture. The goal of preaching is no more and no less than faithfulness to this calling. The glory of preaching is that God has promised to use preachers and preaching to accomplish His purpose and bring glory unto Himself.

Therefore, a theology of preaching is essentially doxology. The ultimate purpose of the sermon is to glorify God and to reveal a glimpse of His glory to His creation. This is the sum and substance of the preaching task. That God would choose such a means to express His own glory is beyond our understanding; it is rooted in the mystery of the will and wisdom of God.

Yet, God has called out preachers and commanded them to preach. Preaching is not an act the church is called to defend but a ministry preachers are called to perform. Thus, whatever the season, the imperative stands: Preach the Word!

 

About the Author: R. Albert Mohler Jr. (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as the ninth president of Southern Seminary and as the Joseph Emerson Brown Professor of Christian Theology. Considered a leader among American evangelicals by Time and Christianity Today magazines, Dr. Mohler hosts a daily radio program for the Salem Radio Network and also writes a popular daily commentary on moral, cultural, and theological issues. Both can be accessed at http://www.albertmohler.com.

The Article above was adapted from the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Chapter One, pp. 13-20) edited by Michael Duduit. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Press, 1992. Dr. Mohler is the author of several excellent books including: He is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World; Culture Shift: The Battle for the Moral Heart of America; Words From the Fire: Hearing the Voice of God in the 10 Commandments; and The Disappearance of God: Dangerous Beliefs in the New Spiritual Openness.

Is Christianity a Crutch for the Weak? by Dan Story

“Only Jesus Christ Meets Human Needs At Their Deepest Level”

What Crutch and Weak Mean to a Christian

Christianity is a crutch for weak people! Obviously, my definitions of crutch and weak are different from the critic’s. Nowhere in Scripture is a Christian’s faith seen as a crutch in the sense of an escape from the reality of a fallen, suffering world (John 17:15). Likewise, nowhere are Christians portrayed as weaklings. On the other hand, throughout Scripture our faith is seen as a supporting pillar, an anchor, a means to healing broken and damaged lives. Likewise, throughout Scripture, believers are seen as depending on and drawing strength from the person who created and sustains them (2 Cor. 12:9–10) and who offers them life more abundantly (John 10:10). It’s in these senses that Christianity is a crutch and Christians are weak. We gladly accept the power of God to us through His Son Jesus Christ (John 14:16).

Why We Need a Crutch

There are three basic needs all people seek to fulfill in order to have peace of mind.

First, physical needs: food, shelter, rest, warmth, and so on.

Second, emotional or psychological needs: love, acceptance, self-esteem, and many others. These two needs are tangible and easy to identify, and they are fulfilled by either our physical environment or other people. We need food and shelter to live; we get this from our environment. We need love, acceptance, and a feeling of worth to function happily in human society; we get this from human relationships.

Being human also means that we seek to satisfy a third basic need: spiritual fulfillment—peace of mind with regard to a belief in a supernatural Being who can answer life’s most perplexing questions in a relevant and believable way that is consistent with reality. The quest for spiritual peace of mind is a worldwide phenomena and a characteristic of mankind as far back as history and archaeology allow us to investigate. As mentioned earlier, all peoples in every culture exhibit a belief in supernatural beings and seek to live in harmony with them. Cultures that have attempted to suppress this instinctive drive have invariably met with failure. The religious fervor in atheistic communist countries, now that religious freedom is returning, is an open acknowledgment that no society can totally suppress humankind’s spiritual need.

C. S. Lewis and others have argued effectively that every natural desire the family of man exhibits is a manifestation of a real and necessary human need. In the physical realm, we crave food because we are hungry; we crave warmth when we become cold; we crave sexual fulfillment because we are created to enjoy intimate physical relationships. Likewise, in the psychological realm, we desire love because we were created to be loved, self-esteem because we were created of value. In the same manner, we crave spiritual fulfillment because God has placed this desire in us. As fourth-century theologian Augustine said, “Thou [God] hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.”

It is logical to assume that if man possesses a natural desire for something in which the world offers no fulfillment, there is something outside the world that will fulfill it. In short, we will have no longings that are unfulfillable, including spiritual longings.

It is crucial at this point to see something very clearly. Of the three innate drives we seek to fulfill, the spiritual drive is the most vital for peace of mind. Let me explain. Physical health does not necessarily lead to peace of mind. The suicide rate among handicapped people is far below the national average. Many handicapped people experience a genuine peace of mind as a result of spiritual fulfillment. Likewise, neither money nor material possessions guarantee peace of mind. Many spirit-filled poor people are vastly more content and happier than many rich people. Nor does emotional fulfillment necessarily lead to peace of mind. The suicide rate among mental-health workers (psychologists, therapists, etc.) is as high as it is in any other profession (some say higher). One would expect that those most knowledgeable in the means of attaining emotional good health would be the ones most likely to achieve it, but that’s not necessarily true. As another example, many thousands of prisoners, isolated from normal social interactions, and after years of living angry, violent, and bitter lives, have come to possess a profound peace of mind and deep spiritual fulfillment by experiencing God’s love and forgiveness.

What’s my point? This: Whereas fulfilling spiritual needs can result in peace of mind in spite of unfulfilled physical or psychological needs, the opposite is not true. Fulfilling physical or psychological needs does not lead to peace of mind without spiritual fulfillment. Regardless of how satisfying one’s life is with regard to good health, material prosperity, and emotional contentment, there exists a longing for something that this earth or human relationships cannot provide: spiritual peace of mind. And only God through Jesus Christ can satisfy that longing.

Two Objections

Before moving on, I want to address two objections that may have surfaced in your mind.

1. “I’m not a religious person, and I don’t go to church. I have peace of mind without religion, so obviously religion is unnecessary in order to have peace of mind.”

I’m not saying no peace of mind can result from good health or emotional stability. Obviously, fulfilling either of these two needs will result in a certain amount of satisfaction or else they would not be real human drives. But this is a much different kind of peace of mind than what one attains through spiritual fulfillment. Peace of mind that relies on good health, financial security, or emotional stability is tenuous and will vanish if these things are threatened. On the other hand, peace of mind founded on spiritual fulfillment will never die because its stability rests on the eternal power of God, not on human strength, success, or earthly objects.

2. “I agree that spiritual peace of mind supersedes all other human drives. But Christianity is not the only religion that offers spiritual fulfillment. Millions of people around the world worship other gods and follow other religions, and they too experience what you call ‘peace of mind.’ ”

This objection contains a degree of truth. Spiritual fulfillment can be achieved in non-Christian religions. But the error here is that other religions are fakes. In other words, as pointed out numerous times throughout this book, they are perversions of religious truth. They are not genuine revelations from God. If Christianity is the only true religion, then Christianity alone will offer eternal peace of mind. False religions can only offer a false sense of security because they do not have the correct answers to life’s bewildering questions, especially to What happens to me when I die?

To see this played out in real life, one needs only to examine religious conversions. Many millions of practitioners of false religions have converted to Christianity. They all acknowledge that Christianity is the only true religion and that what they thought previously was spiritual peace of mind turned out to be spiritual deception. On the other hand, it is very uncommon to see Christians convert to non-Christian religions. It is much more natural to walk from darkness to light than it is to walk from light to darkness (John 8:12). The few non-Christian religions that do boast a constituent of former Christians (such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses) all use the Bible as a “holy book” and parallel many of their teachings with Christian doctrine, thereby employing a subtle and deceptive way of enticing Christians into accepting their heretical beliefs.

How Spiritual Fulfillment Works

Christianity offers spiritual fulfillment in two ways.

The Philosophical Approach

I earlier defined spiritual fulfillment as “peace of mind with regard to a belief in a supernatural Being who can answer life’s most perplexing questions in a relevant and believable way that is consistent with reality.” Thus, in the Christian world view, spiritual fulfillment is gaining answers to precisely the same questions that the non-Christian world cannot answer:

•            Who am I? What is my status in relation to the rest of life and the cosmos?

•            Where did I come from? What is the origin of my existence?

•            Why am I here? What purpose do I have for my existence?

•            What happens to me when I die? Is there life after death, and how do I obtain it?

All of these questions are unanswerable by science or philosophy because they involve issues beyond the scientist’s or philosopher’s ability to respond. They are unanswerable by non-Christian religions because they do not have divine revelation. These questions can only be answered by an all-powerful, all-knowing Intelligence who stands above and apart from humanity and yet who loves His creatures so much that He invites them to share in a loving personal relationship with Him. This describes only the God of Scripture. Since God created man, He knows exactly what man needs to achieve eternal and complete happiness.

Christianity is true precisely because it offers answers to life’s great mysteries that are in total harmony and consistency with the world as it exists. Unlike other religions, the Christian world view is coherent and believable; it is not mystical, esoteric, or far-fetched.

The Practical Approach

Christianity is also true because it meets human needs at their deepest level in a pragmatic way. Being a Christian is not always easy, but it promises something no other religion in the world can offer: it replaces the old, beaten self with a new spirit-filled self. Christianity has been the world’s most successful religion not only because it is the true revelation of God but because it makes changes in the inner man. While other religions have rules and regulations to follow, Christianity has a risen Savior that promises a born-again life (John 3:3) if we trust in Him. Jesus assures us that He “came that [we] might have life, and might have it abundantly” (John 10:10, nasv; see Phil. 4:5–7, 19).

Jesus is our crutch because we cannot attain eternal peace and life without Him. Only God has the answers to the questions of life, and only through Jesus Christ can we experience spiritual peace of mind. Prominent theologian J. I. Packer put it like this: “Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.”

Is Christianity a crutch for weak people? Yes, in the same sense that gasoline is a crutch for an automobile. As Lewis said, Christians “run” on Jesus Christ—not because they are weaklings, but because God’s power becomes our power through acknowledging our dependence on Him. The apostle Paul says it best:

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10, nasv).

Article adapted from Dan Story. Defending Your Faith. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004, 223-228.

About the Author in his own words: I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, the youngest of three siblings. From birth to the eighth grade, I lived in two states, six cities, and twelve houses (that I can remember). My wife and I were both nineteen when we married, and we have two children and four grandchildren. We presently live in Ramona, California. My hobbies include hiking, wildlife photography, traveling (especially to national and state parks), and mountain biking. 

I have had two great passions in my life. The first is rooted in one of my earliest childhood memories. At the time, my family lived in Seal Beach, California, and my father owned a mining claim in a remote section of the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona.

When I was four or five years old, I visited the mine with Mom and Dad. I credit that trip into the arid wilderness as the beginning of a lifelong love for nature and all things wild, lonely, and beautiful—an enchantment that has never weakened nor ever departed during all the ensuing years. 

When I became an adult, my love for nature became the focus of my life (other than my family and closest friends) and dominated my recreational and writing activities throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. With my wife, kids, and friends, I camped, backpacked, hiked, and explored numerous wilderness areas throughout the Western United States. My wife and I joined the Sierra Club, volunteered at a wildlife rescue center, and were active in various local environmental undertakings, including promoting California’s “Bottle Bill” and establishing a large open space preserve in San Diego County.

My first published magazine article in 1974 was titled “Helping Children Learn an Ecology Value,” followed by “The Wild Chaparral,” “Clocking the Cuckoo” (about the Roadrunner), and a two and a half year series of “Animal of the Month” articles published in a Sierra Club newspaper. In short, nature was my life and protecting and enjoying it was my passion. 

This changed dramatically after I became a Christian in 1981. My passion soon changed from delight in nature (creation) to worshipping the Creator. Although my enthusiasm and love for nature did not diminish, it was no longer the center of my life. In fact, my thesis for a master’s degree in Christian Apologetics was a 330-page book titled, Environmental Stewardship: A Biblical Approach to Environmental Ethics. After graduating in 1988, however, my focus in writing changed. Instead of defending the wilderness, I took up the case for Jesus Christ and began to write books and booklets, and to teach classes and workshops, on how to defend the Christian faith. 

Today, my ministry focuses primarily on Christian environmentalism (“creation care”). My writing and teaching includes topics on biblical environmental ethics and stewardship, ecological issues, wildlife, and other nature related topics (all from a Christian perspective and often with an apologetic emphasis). 

For a list of the books and articles I have published in the area of Christian apologetics, Christian environmentalism, wildlife and nature, click on “Published Works.” For information on my creation care and apologetic workshops, click on “Workshops.” 
For my credentials and ministry experiences, click on “Credentials.

Why Sola Scriptura is Crucial to Evangelicalism by Dr. R.C. Sproul

“The only source and norm of all Christian knowledge is the Holy Scripture.” This thematic statement introduces De Scriptura Sacra of Heinrich Heppe’s classic work in Reformed dogmatics and provides a succinct expression of the Reformation slogan: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone). The two key words that are used to crystallize the sola character of Scripture are source and norm.

The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura was given the status of the formal cause of the Reformation by Melanchthon and his Lutheran followers. The formal cause was distinguished from the material cause of Sola Fide (by faith alone). Though the chief theological issue of the Reformation was the question of the matter of justification, the controversy touched heavily on the underlying question of authority. As is usually the case in theological controversy, the issue of ultimate authority lurked in the background (though it was by no means hidden or obscure) of Luther’s struggle with Rome over justification. The question of the source of Luther’s doctrine and the normative authority by which it was to be judged was vital to his cause.

Sola Scriptura and Inerrancy

A brief historical recapitulation of the steps that led to Luther’s Sola Scriptura dictum may be helpful. After Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, a series of debates, correspondence, charges, and countercharges ensued, culminating in Luther’s dramatic stand at Worms in April 1521. The two most significant transitional points between the theses of 1517 and the Diet of Worms of 1521 were the debates at Augsburg and Leipzig.

In October 1518 Luther met with Cardinal Cajetan of the Dominicans. Cajetan was acknowledged to be the most learned theologian of the Roman Curia. In the course of their discussions Cajetan was able to elicit from Luther his views on the infallibility of the pope. Luther asserted that the pope could err and claimed that Pope Clement VI’s bull Unigenitus (1343) was contrary to Scripture.

In the summer of 1519 the dramatic encounter between Luther and Johannes von Eck took place at Leipzig. In this exchange Eck elicited from Luther the admission of his belief that not only could the pope err but church councils could and did err as well. It was at Leipzig that Luther made clear his assertion: Scripture alone is the ultimate, divine authority in all matters pertaining to religion.

Gordon Rupp gives the following account:

Luther affirmed that “among the articles of John Huss and the Hussites which were condemned, are many which are truly Christian and evangelical, and which the church universal cannot condemn!” This was sensational! There was a moment of shocked silence, and then an uproar above which could be heard Duke George’s disgusted, “Gad, Sir, that’s the Plague!… ” Eck pressed his advantage home, and Luther, trapped, admitted that since their decrees are also of human law, Councils may err.

So by the time Luther stood before the Diet of Worms, the principle of Sola Scriptura was already well established in his mind and work. Only the Scripture carries absolute normative authority. Why? For Luther the sola of Sola Scriptura was inseparably related to the Scriptures’ unique inerrancy. It was because popes could and did err and because councils could and did err that Luther came to realize the supremacy of Scripture. Luther did not despise church authority nor did he repudiate church councils as having no value. His praise of the Council of Nicea is noteworthy. Luther and the Reformers did not mean by Sola Scriptura that the Bible is the only authority in the church. Rather, they meant that the Bible is the only infallible authority in the church.

Paul Althaus summarizes the train of Luther’s thought by saying:

We may trust unconditionally only in the Word of God and not in the teaching of the fathers; for the teachers of the Church can err and have erred. Scripture never errs. Therefore it alone has unconditional authority. The authority of the theologians of the Church is relative and conditional. Without the authority of the words of Scripture, no one can establish hard and fast statements in the Church.

Thus Althaus sees Luther’s principle of Sola Scriptura arising as a corollary of the inerrancy of Scripture. To be sure, the fact that Scripture is elevated to be the sole authority of the church does not carry with it the necessary inference that it is inerrant. It could be asserted that councils, popes, and the Bible all err and still postulate a theory of Sola Scriptura. Scripture could be considered on a primus inter pares (“first among equals”) basis with ecclesiastical authority, giving it a kind of primacy among errant sources. Or Scripture could be regarded as carrying unique authority solely on the basis of its being the primary historical source of the gospel. But the Reformers’ view of Sola Scriptura was higher than this. The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura involved inerrancy.

Sola Scriptura, ascribing to the Scriptures a unique authority, must be understood in a normative sense. Not descriptive, but rather normative authority is meant by the formula. The normative character of the Sola Scriptura principle may be seen by a brief survey of sixteenth-century Reformed confessions.

The Theses of Berne (1528): The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments without God’s Word. Hence all human traditions, which are called ecclesiastical commandments, are binding upon us only in so far as they are based on and commanded by God’s Word (Sec. II).

The Geneva Confession (1536): First we affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as a rule of faith and religion, without mixing with it any other things which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the Word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than what is conveyed to us by the same Word without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord (Sec. I).

The French Confession of Faith (1559): We believe that the Word contained in these books has proceeded from God, and receives its authority from him alone, and not from men. And inasmuch as it is the rule of all truth, containing all that is necessary for the service of God and for our salvation, it is not lawful for men, nor even for angels, to add to it, to take away from it, or to change it. Whence it follows that no authority, whether of antiquity, or custom, or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments, or proclamations, or edicts, or decrees, or councils, or visions, or miracles, should be opposed to these Holy Scriptures, but on the contrary, all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed according to them (Art. V).

The Belgic Confession (1561): We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and confirmation of our faith; believing, without any doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnessed in our hearts that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves (Art. V). Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule (Art. VII).

Second Helvetic Confession (1566): Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than Christ himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what is to be avoided (Chap. II).

Uniformly the sixteenth-century confessions elevate the authority of Scripture over any other conceivable authority. Thus, even the testimony of angels is to be judged by the Scriptures. Why? Because, as Luther believed, the Scriptures alone are inerrant. Sola Scriptura as the supreme norm of ecclesiastical authority rests ultimately on the premise of the infallibility of the Word of God.

Extent of the Norm

To what extent does the Sola Scriptura principle of authority apply? We hear statements that declare Scripture to be the “only infallible rule of faith and practice.” Does this limit the scope of biblical infallibility? Among advocates of limited inerrancy we hear the popular notion that the Bible is inerrant or infallible only when it speaks of matters of faith and practice. Matters of history or cosmology may contain error but not matters of faith and practice. Here we see a subtle shift from the Reformation principle. Note the difference in the following propositions:

A. The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice.

B. The Bible is infallible only when it speaks of faith and practice.

In premise A, “faith and practice” are generic terms that describe the Bible. In premise B, “faith and practice” presumably describe only a particular part of the Bible. Premise A affirms that there is but one infallible authority for the church. The proposition sets no content limit on the infallibility of the Scriptures. Premise B gives a reduced canon of that which is infallible; that is, the Bible is infallible only when it speaks of faith and practice. This second premise represents a clear and decisive departure from the Reformation view.

Premise A does not say that the Bible provides information about every area of life, such as mathematics or physics. But it affirms that what he Bible teaches, it teaches infallibly.

The Source of Authority

Heppe’s sola indicates that the Bible is not only the unique and final authority of the church but is also the “only source of all Christian knowledge.” At first glance this statement may seem to suggest that the only source of revelation open to man is that found in Scripture. But that is not the intent of Heppe’s statement, nor is it the intent of the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura.

Uniformly the Reformers acknowledged general revelation as a source of knowledge of God. The question of whether or not that general revelation yields a bona fide natural theology was and is widely disputed, but there is no serious doubt that the Reformers affirmed a revelation present in nature. Thus the sola does not exclude general revelation but points beyond it to the sufficiency of Scripture as the unique source of written special revelation.

The context of the Sola Scriptura schema with respect to source was the issue (raised over against Rome) regarding the relationship of Scripture and Tradition. Central to the debate was the Council of Trent’s declaration regarding Scripture and Tradition. (Trent was part of the Roman counteroffensive to the Reformation, and Sola Scriptura was not passed over lightly in this counter-offensive.)

In the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent the following decree was formulated: This (Gospel), of old promised through the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, promulgated first with His own mouth, and then commanded it to be preached by His Apostles to every creature as the source at once of all saving truth and rules of conduct. It also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand. Following then, the examples of the Orthodox fathers, it receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic church in unbroken succession.

In this decree the Roman Catholic church apparently affirmed two sources of special revelation—Scripture and the Tradition of the church—although in recent years this “dual source” theory has come into question within the Roman church.

G. C. Berkouwer’s work on Vatican Council II provides a lengthy discussion of current interpretations of the Tridentine formula on Scripture and Tradition. Some scholars argue that Tradition adds no new content to Scripture but merely serves either as a depository in the life of the church or as a formal interpretive tool of the church. A technical point of historical research concerning Trent sheds some interesting light on the matter. In the original draft of the fourth session of Trent the decree read that “the truths … are contained partly [partim] in Scripture and partly [partim] in the unwritten traditions.” But at a decisive point in the Council’s deliberations two priests, Nacchianti and Bonnucio rose in protest against the partim … partim formula. These men protested on the grounds that this view would destroy the uniqueness and sufficiency of Scripture. All we know from that point on is that the words partly … partly were removed from the text and replaced by the word and (et). Did this mean that the Council responded to the protest and perhaps left the relationship between Scripture and Tradition purposely ambiguous? Was the change stylistic, meaning that the Council still maintained two distinct sources of revelation? These questions are the focus of the current debate among Roman theologians.

One thing is certain. The Roman church has interpreted Trent as affirming two sources of special revelation since the sixteenth century. Vatican I spoke of two sources. The papal encyclical Humani Generis spoke of “sources of revelation.” Even Pope John XXIII spoke of Scripture and Tradition in Ad Petri Cathedram.

Not only has the dual-source theory been confirmed both by ecumenical councils and papal encyclicals, but tradition has been appealed to on countless occasions to validate doctrinal formulations that divide Rome and Protestantism. This is particularly true regarding decisions in the area of Mariology.

Over against this dual-source theory stands the sola of Sola Scriptura. Again, the Reformers did not despise the treasury of church tradition. The great councils of Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople receive much honor in Protestant tradition. The Reformers themselves gave tribute to the insights of the church fathers. Calvin’s love for Augustine is apparent throughout the Institutes. Luther’s expertise in the area of Patristics was evident in his debates with Cajetan and Eck. He frequently quotes the fathers as highly respected ecclesiastical authorities. But the difference is this: For the Reformers no church council, synod, classical theologian, or early church father is regarded as infallible. All are open to correction and critique. We have no Doctor Irrefragabilis of Protestantism.

Protestant churches have tended to be confessional in character. Subscription to confessions and creeds has been mandatory for the clergy and parish of many denominations. Confessions have been used as a test of orthodoxy and conformity to the faith and practice of the church. But the confessions are all regarded as reformable. They are considered reformable because they are considered fallible. But the Sola Scriptura principles in its classic application regards the Scripture as irreformable because of its infallibility. Thus the two primary thrusts of Sola Scriptura point to:

1) Scripture’s uniqueness as normative authority and

2) its uniqueness as the source of special revelation. Norm and source are the twin implicates of the Sola Scriptura principle.

Is Sola Scriptura the Essence of Christianity?

In a recent publication on questions of Scripture, Bernard Ramm wrote an essay entitled, “Is ‘Scripture Alone’ the Essence of Christianity?” Using the nineteenth-century German penchant for the quest of the “Wesen” of Christianity as a jumping-off point, Ramm gives a brief history of the liberal-conservative controversy concerning the role of Scripture in the Christian faith. Defining Wesen as “the essence of something, the real spirit or burden of a treatise, the heart of the matter,” he concludes that Scripture is not the Wesen of Christianity. He provides a historical survey to indicate that neither the Reformers nor the strong advocates of inerrancy, A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, believed that Sola Scriptura was the essence of Christianity. Ramm cites numerous quotations from Hodge and Warfield that speak of the Scriptures as being “absolutely infallible,” and “without error of facts or doctrines.” Yet these men affirmed that “Christianity was true independently of any theory of inspiration, and its great doctrines were believable within themselves.”

Ramm goes on to express grave concern about the present debate among evangelicals concerning inerrancy. Here his concern focuses not on the teaching of Hodge and Warfield but on the attitudes of their contemporary disciples who, in Ramm’s opinion, go beyond their forefathers in asserting a particular view of Scripture as being Christianity’s essence. Ramm writes:

From the other writings of Warfield in particular, it would be impossible to say that he identified the Wesen of Christianity with his view of Holy Scripture. He was enough of a historian of theology to avoid saying that. The “inspiration” article was an essay in strategy. However, among current followers of the so-called Warfield position there have been certain shifts away from the original strategic stance of the essay. One’s doctrine of Scripture has become now the first and most important doctrine, one’s theory of the wesen of Christianity, so that all other doctrines have validity now only as they are part of the inerrant Scripture. Thus evangelical teachers, or evangelical schools or evangelical movements, can be judged as to whether or not they are true to the wesen of Christianity by their theory of inspiration. It can be stated even more directly: an evangelical has made a theory of inspiration the wesen of Christianity if he assumes that the most important doctrine in a man’s theology, and most revelatory of the entire range of his theological thought, is his theology of inspiration.

It appears from this statement that the “essence” of Ramm’s concern for the present state of evangelicalism is that one’s doctrine of Scripture is viewed as the essence or wesen of Christianity. This writer can only join hands with Ramm in total agreement with his concern. To make one’s view of Scripture in general or of inspiration in particular the essence of Christianity would be to commit an error of the most severe magnitude. To subordinate the importance of the gospel itself to the importance of our historical source book of it would be to obscure the centrality of Christ. To subordinate Sola Fide to Sola Scriptura would be to misunderstand radically the wesen of the Reformation. Clearly Ramm is correct in taking his stand on this point with Hodge, Warfield, and the Reformers. Who can object to that?

One may be troubled, however, by a portion of Ramm’s stated concern. Who are these “current followers” of Warfield who in fact do maintain that Sola Scriptura is the heart or essence of Christianity? What disciple of Warfield’s has ever maintained that Sola Scriptura is essential to salvation? Ramm provides us with no names or documentary evidence to demonstrate that his deep concern is warranted.

To be sure, strong statements have been made by followers of the Warfield school of the crucial importance of Sola Scriptura and the centrality of biblical authority to all theological disputes. Perhaps these statements have contained some “overkill” in the passion of debate, which is always regrettable. We must be very cautious in our zeal to defend a high view of Scripture not to give the impression that we are talking about an article on which our salvation depends.

We can cite the following statements by advocates of the Warfield school that could be construed as a possible basis for Ramm’s concern. In God’s Inerrant Word, J. I. Packer makes the following assertion:

What Luther thus voiced at Worms shows the essential motivation and concern, theological and religious, of the entire Reformation movement: namely that the Word of God alone must rule, and no Christian man dare do other than allow it to enthrone itself in his conscience and heart.

Here Packer calls the notion of Sola Scriptura “the essential motivation and concern” of the Reformation. In itself this quote certainly suggests that Packer views Sola Scriptura as the essence of the Reformation.

However, in defense of Packer it must be noted that to say Sola Scriptura was the essential motivation of the Reformation movement is not to say that Sola Scriptura is the essence of Christianity. He is speaking here of a historical controversy. That Sola Scriptura was at the heart of the controversy and central to the debate cannot be doubted. To say that Sola Scriptura was an essential motif or concern of the Reformation cannot be doubted. That is was the essential concern may be brought into question; this may be regraded as an overstatement. But again, in fairness to Packer, it must be noted that earlier in his essay he had already indicated that Justification by Faith Alone was the material principle. So he had already maintained that Sola Scriptura was subordinate to Sola Fide in the controversy. In any case, though the word essential is used, there is no hint here that Packer maintains that Sola Scriptura is the essence of Christianity.

In a recent unpublished essay, Richard Lovelace of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary cites both Harold Lindsell and Francis Schaeffer as men who have sounded urgent warnings concerning the relationship between inerrancy and evangelicalism. Lovelace cites the following statements of Schaeffer:

There is not use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger, if at the same time appreciable parts … are getting soft at that which is the central core, namely the Scriptures.… We must say most lovingly but clearly: evangelicalism is not consistently evangelical unless there is a line drawn between those who take a full view of Scripture and those who do not.

Again Schaeffer is cited: “Holding to a strong view of Scripture or not holding to it is the watershed of the evangelical world.” In these statements Francis Schaeffer maintains that the Scriptures are:

1) the “central core” of evangelicalism,

2) a mark of “consistent evangelicalism,” and

3) the “watershed of the evangelical world.”

These are strong assertions about the role of Sola Scriptura, but they are made with reference to evangelicalism, not Christianity (though I am sure Schaeffer believes evangelicalism is the purest expression of Christianity to be found). Evangelicalism refers to a historical position or movement. When he speaks of “watersheds,” he is speaking of crucial historical turning points. When he speaks of “consistent” evangelicalism, he implies there may be such a thing as inconsistent evangelicalism.

The troublesome quote of Schaeffer is that one in which he says the Scriptures are “the central core” of evangelicalism. Here “core” is in the singular with the definite article giving it a sola character. Does Schaeffer mean that the Bible is the core of evangelicalism and the gospel is the husk? Is Sola Scriptura the center and Sola Fide at the periphery of evangelicalism? It is hard to think that Schaeffer would make such an assertion. Indeed, one may question if Schaeffer means what he in fact does say here. Had he said, “Scripture is at the core of evangelicalism,” there would be no dispute. But to say it is the core appears an overstatement. Perhaps we have here a slip of the pen, which any of us can and frequently do make.

In similar fashion Harold Lindsell may be quoted: “Is the term ‘evangelical’ broad enough in its meaning to include within it believers in inerrancy and believers in an inerrancy limited to matters of faith and practice?” Lindsell raises the question of whether or not inerrancy of the entire Bible is essential to the term evangelical. The question raised is: If Sola Scriptura in its fullest sense is of the Wesen of evangelicalism, can one who espouses limited inerrancy be genuinely called evangelical? The issue is the meaning of the term evangelical. Does it carry with it the automatic assumption of full inerrancy? Again we must point out the difference between the historical label “evangelical” and what is essential to Christianity.

None of the scholars mentioned have said that adherence to inerrancy or Sola Scriptura is essential to salvation. None have Sola Scriptura as the Wesen of Christianity.

It could be said that the argument of the writer of this chapter is constructed on straw men who “come close” to asserting that Sola Scriptura is the essence of Christianity but who, in the final analysis, shrink for such an assertion. But it is not my purpose to create straw men. It is simply to find some basis for Ramm’s assertion about modern followers of Warfield. Since I have not been able to find any followers of Warfield who assert Sola Scriptura as the Wesen of Christianity, the best I can do is to cite examples of statements that could possibly be misconstrued to assert that. It is probably charity that restrained Ramm from naming those he had in mind. But unfortunately, the absence of names casts a shadow of suspicion over all modern followers of Warfield who hold to full inerrancy.

Though advocates of inerrancy in the full sense of Sola Scriptura do not regard it as being essential to salvation, they do maintain that the principle is crucial to Christianity and to consistent evangelicalism. That in Scripture we have divine revelation is no small matter. That the gospel rests not on human conjecture or relational speculation is of vital importance. But there is no quarrel with Ramm on these points. He summarizes his own position by saying:

1. There is no questioning of the Sola Scriptura in theology. Scripture is the supreme and final authority in theological decision-making.

2. One’s views of revelation, inspiration, and interpretation are important. They do implicate each other. Our discussion rather has been whether a certain view of inspiration could stand as the wesen of Christianity. We have in no manner suggested that matters of revelation, inspiration, and interpretation are unimportant in theology.

Here we delight in agreement with this strong affirmation of the crucial importance of Sola Scriptura.

Strangely, however, Ramm continues his summary by saying, “If the integrity of other evangelicals, evangelical schools, or evangelical movements are assessed by their view of inspiration, then, for them, inspiration has become the wesen of Christianity.” The inference Ramm draws at this point is at once puzzling and astonishing, and perhaps we meet here merely another case of overstatement or a slip of the pen. How would it follow from an assessment of others’ evangelicalism as being consistent or inconsistent according to their view of Scripture that inspiration has become the wesen of Christianity? This inference involves a quantum leap of logic.

If the first two points of Ramm’s summary are correct—that Sola Scriptura is important and that it implicates views of interpretation and theological decision making—why should not a school’s or movement’s integrity (a fully integrated stance) be assessed by this principle? Though Sola Scriptura is not the wesen of Christianity, it is still of crucial importance. If a school or movement softens its view of Scripture, that does not mean it has repudiated the essence of Christianity. But it does mean that a crucial point of doctrine and classical evangelical unity has been compromised. If, as Ramm suggests, one’s view of Scripture is so important, then a weakening of that view should concern us.

The issue of full or limited inerrancy is a serious one among those within the framework of historic evangelicalism. In the past a healthy and energetic spirit of cooperation has existed among evangelicals from various and diverse theological persuasions and ecclesiastical affiliations. Lutherans and Baptists, Calvinists and Arminians, and believers of all sorts have united in evangelical activity. What has been the cohesive force of that unity? In the first instance, there has been a consensus of catholic articles of faith, such as the deity of Christ. In the second instance, a strong point of unity has been the cardinal doctrine of the Protestant Reformation: justification by faith alone. In the last instance, there has been the unifying factor of Sola Scriptura in the sense of full inerrancy. The only “creed” that has bound the Evangelical Theological Society together, for example, has been the affirmation of inerrancy. Now that point of unity is in jeopardy. The essence of Christianity is not the issue. But a vital point of consistent evangelicalism is.

Sola Scriptura and Limited Inerrancy

Is Sola Scriptura compatible with a view of Scripture that limits inerrancy to matters of faith and practice? Theoretically it would seem to be possible if “faith and practice” could be separated from any part of Scripture. So long as biblical teaching regarding faith and practice were held to be normative for the Christian community, there would appear to be no threat to the essence of Christianity. However, certain problems exist with such a view of Scripture that do seriously threaten the essence of Christianity.

The first major problem we encounter with limited inerrancy is the problem of canon reduction. The canon or “norm” of Scripture is reduced de facto to that content relating to faith and practice. This immediately raises the hermeneutical question concerning what parts of Scripture deal with faith. As evangelicals wrestle among themselves in intramural debates, they must keep one eye focused on the liberal world of biblical scholarship, for the principle of the reduction of canon to matters of “faith” is precisely the chief operative in Bultmann’s hermeneutic. Bultmann thinks we must clear away the prescientific and faulty historical “husk” of Scripture to get to the viable kernel of “faith.” Thus, although Bultmann has no inerrant kernel or kerygma to fall back on, his problem of canon reduction remains substantially the same as that of those who limit inerrancy to faith and practice.

Before someone cries foul or cites the informal fallacy of argumentum ad hominem (abusive) or the “guilt by association” fallacy, let this concern be clarified. I am not saying that advocates of limited inerrancy are cryptic or even incipient Bultmannians, but that there is one very significant point of similarity between the two schools: canon reductionism. Evangelical advocates of limited inerrancy are not expected to embrace Bultmann’s mythical view of New Testament supernaturalism. But their method has no inherent safeguard from an arbitrary delimitation of the scope of the biblical canon.

The second serious problem, closely related to the first, is the problem of the relationship of faith and history, perhaps the most serious question of contemporary New Testament scholarship. If we limit the notion of inerrancy to matters of faith and practice, what becomes of biblical history? Is the historical substratum of the gospel negotiable? Are only those portions of the biblical narrative that have a clear bearing on faith inerrant? How do we escape dehistoricizing the gospel and relegating it to a level of supratemporal existential “decision”? We know that the Bible is not an ordinary history book but a book of redemptive history. But is it not also a book of redemptive history? If we exclude the realm of history from the category of inspiration or inerrancy either in whole or in part, do we not inevitably lose the gospel?

The third problem we face with limiting inerrancy to matters of faith and practice is an apologetic one. To those critics outside the fellowship of evangelicals, the notion of “limited inerrancy” appears artificial and contrived. Limited inerrancy gets us off the apologetical hook by making us immune to religious-historical criticism. We can eat our cake and have it too. The gospel is preserved; and our faith and practice remains intact while we admit errors in matters of history and cosmology. We cannot believe the Bible concerning earthly things, but we stake our lives on what it says concerning heavenly things. That approach was totally abrogated by our Lord (John 3:12).

How do we explain and defend the idea that the Bible is divinely superintended in part of its content but not all of it? Which part is inspired? Why only the faith and practice parts? Again, which are the faith and practice parts? Can we not justly be accused of “weaseling” if we adopt such a view? We remove our faith from the arena of historical verification nor falsification. This is a fatal blow for apologetics as the reasoned defense of Christianity.

Finally, we face the problem of the domino theory. Frequently this concern is dismissed out of hand as being so much alarmism. But our doctrine of Scripture is not a child’s game of dominoes. We know instances in which men have abandoned belief in full inerrancy but have remained substantially orthodox in the rest of their theology. We are also aware of the sad instances in which full inerrancy is affirmed yet the substance of theology is corrupt. Inerrancy is no guarantee of biblical orthodoxy. Yet even a cursory view of church history has shown some pattern of correlation between a weakening of biblical authority and serious defection regarding the Wesen of Christianity. The wesen of nineteenth-century liberalism is hardly the gospel evangelicals embrace.

We have already seen, within evangelical circles, a move from limited inerrancy to challenges of matters of faith and practice. When the apostle Paul is depicted as espousing two mutually contradictory views of the role of women in the church, we see a critique of apostolic teaching that does touch directly on the practice of the church. In the hotly disputed issue of homosexuality we see denominational commissions not only supplementing biblical authority with corroborative evidence drawn from modern sources of medical psychological study but also “correcting” the biblical view by such secular authority.The direction of these movements of thought is a matter of grave concern for advocates of full inerrancy.

We face a crisis of authority in the church. It is precisely our faith and our practice that is in question. It is for faith and practice that we defend a fully infallible rule—a total view of Sola Scriptura.

We know some confusion has existed (much unnecessarily) about the meaning of full inerrancy. But with all the problems of definition that plague the concept, we do not think it has died the death of a thousand qualifications.

We are concerned about Sola Scriptura for many reasons. But we affirm it in the final analysis not because it was the view of the Reformers, not because we slavishly revere Hodge and Warfield, not even because we are afraid of dominoes or a difficult apologetic. We defend it and express our deep concern about it because we believe it is the truth. It is a truth we do not want to negotiate. We earnestly desire dialogue with our evangelical brothers and colaborers who differ from us. We want to heal the wounds that controversy so frequently brings. We know our own views are by no means inerrant. But we believe inerrancy is true and is of vital importance to our common cause of the gospel.

Further dialogue within the evangelical world should at least help us clarify what real differences there are among us. Such clarification is important if there is to be any hope of resolving those differences. We do not intend to communicate that a person’s Christian faith stands or falls with his view of Scripture. We do not question the Christian commitment of advocates of limited inerrancy. What we do question is the correctness of their doctrine of Scripture, as the question ours. But we consider this debate, as serious as it is, a debate between members of the household of God. May our Father bring us to unity here as he has in many glorious affirmations of his gospel.

Article above written by Dr. R.C. Sproul. “Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism.” The Foundations of Biblical Authority. James M. Boice, ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.

About the Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk Magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: THE HOLINESS OF GOD; CHOSEN BY GOD; KNOWING SCRIPTURE; WILLING TO BELIEVE; REASON TO BELIEVE; and PLEASING GOD) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as Senior Minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL

Dr. J.I. Packer Answers the Question “Will A Loving God Really Condemn People to Hell?”

*Dr. J.I. Packer’s answer to this very important question comes from Chapters One and Five of the book J.I. Packer Answers Questions For Today with Wendy Murray Zoba, Wheaton: Tyndale, 2001, pp. 15, 45-46, 75-77, 79-80.

The problem of individual human destiny has always pressed hard upon thoughtful Christians who take the Bible seriously, for Scripture affirms these three things:

(1) The reality of hell as a state of eternal, destructive punishment, in which God’s judgment for sin is directly experienced;

(2) The certainty of hell for all who choose it by rejecting Jesus Christ and his offer of eternal life; and

(3) The justice of hell as an appropriate divine judgment upon humanity for our lawless and cruel deeds.

It was, to be sure, hell-deserving sinners whom Jesus came to save. All who put their trust in him may know themselves forgiven, justified, and accepted forever—and thus delivered from the wrath to come. But what of those who lack this living faith—those who are hypocrites in the church; or “good pagans” who lived before Christ’s birth; or those who, through no fault of their own, never heard the Christian message, or who met it only in an incomplete and distorted form? Or what of those who lived in places where Christianity was a capital offense, or who suffered from ethno-nationalistic or sociocultural conditioning against the faith, or who were so resentful of Christians for hurting them in some way that they were never emotionally free for serious thoughts about Christian truth? Are they all necessarily lost?

The universalistic idea that all people will eventually be saved by grace is a comforting belief. It relieves anxiety about the destiny of pagans, atheists, devotees of non-Christian religions, victims of post-Christian secularity—the millions of adults who never hear the gospel and millions of children who die before they can understand it. All sensitive Christians would like to embrace universalism. It would get us off a very painful hook.

However, no biblical passage unambiguously asserts universal final salvation, and some speak very explicitly about the lost ness of the lost. Universalism is a theological speculation that discounts the meaning of these New Testament passages in favor of what Universalists claim to be thrust of New Testament thinking: that is, that God’s retributive justice toward humanity is always a disciplinary expression of love that ultimately wins them salvation.

It would be nice to believe that, but Scripture nowhere suggests it when speaking of judgment, and the counterarguments seem overwhelmingly cogent. Universalism ignores the constant biblical stress on the decisiveness and finality of this life’s decisions for determining eternal destiny.

“God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil…but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good…For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:6-11). This is Paul affirming God’s justice according to the classic definition of justice, as giving everyone his or her due. All Scripture speaks this way.

Universalism condemns Christ himself, who warned people to flee hell at all costs. If it were true that all humanity will ultimately be saved from hell, he would have to have been either incompetent (ignorant that all were going to be saved) or immoral (knowing, but concealing it, so as to bluff people into the kingdom through fear).

The Universalist idea of sovereign grace saving all non-believers after death raises new problems.

If God has the ability to bring all to faith eventually, why would he not do it in this life in every case where the gospel is known?

If it is beyond God’s power to convert all who know the gospel here, on what grounds can we be sure that he will be able to do it hereafter?

The Universalist’s doctrine of God cannot be made fully coherent.

Universalism, therefore, as a theory about destiny, will not work. This life’s decisions must be deemed to be decisive. And thus, proclaiming the gospel to our fallen, guilty, and hell-bent fellows must be the first service we owe them in light of their first and basic need.

“I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks…to preach the gospel,” wrote Paul. “For ‘every one who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then can they call on the one…of whom they have not heard?…Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 1:14-15; 10:13-14, 17; see Joel 2:32).

Isn’t Telling People About Hellfire Passé?

There has been a strong reaction in Christian circles against imaginative presentations of hell, the endless fire and all of that. But people do need to know that lostness is a fact.

My concept of hell owes much to C.S. Lewis, whose key thought is that what you have chosen to be in this world comes back at you as your eternal destiny; if you’ve chosen to put up the shutters against God’s grace rather than receive it, that’s how you will spend eternity. Hell is to exist in a state apart from God, where all of the good things in this world no longer remain for you. All that remains is to be shut up in yourself, realizing what you have missed and lost through saying no to God.

In Jean Paul Sartre’s play about hell, No Exit, four people find themselves in a room they can’t leave, and they can’t get away from one another. What Sartre presents is the ongoing, endless destruction of each person by the others. Though Sartre was n atheist, his nightmare vision of this process makes substantial sense to me as image of hell—one aspect of it, anyway. The unending realization of God’s displeasure and rejection has to be in reality in hell, too.

Can Someone Who Has Died Be Converted After Physical Death?

Hebrews 9:27 says, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” When the writer of Hebrews speaks of dying “once,” he uses a word that means “once for all”; not once as distinct from two or more times. By happening once, the event changes things permanently so that the possibility of it happening again is removed. That is what the word means when it is applied in verses 26 and 28 to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the Cross.

The unrepeatable reality of physical death leads directly to reaping what we sowed in this world. This is what Jesus taught in his story of the callous rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16:19-31), and when he spoke of dying in one’s sin as something supremely dreadful (John 8:21-23). And this is what Paul taught when he affirmed that, on judgment day, all will receive a destiny corresponding to their works. The New Testament is solid in viewing death and judgment this way.

Modern theologians are not all solid here. Some of them expect that some who did not embrace Christ in this life may yet do so savingly in the life to come. Some link with this idea that a God of grace owes everyone a clear presentation of the gospel in terms they understand, which is certainly more than many receive in this life. Others, like the Universalists presume all humans will finally enjoy God in heaven, and therefore that God must and will continue to exert loving pressure, one way or another, till all have been drawn to Christ. The late Nels Ferre described hell as having “a school and a door” in it—when those in hell come to their senses about Christ, they may leave, so that place ends up empty. But this is non-scriptural speculation and reflects an inadequate grasp of what turning to Christ involves.

How a newly-dead person’s perceptions differ from what they were before death is more than we have been told. But Scripture says nothing of prevenient grace triggering postmortem conversions. That being so, we should conclude that the unbeliever’s lack of desire for Christ and the Father and heaven before death remains unchanged after death. For God to extend the offer of salvation beyond the moment of death, even for thirty seconds, would be pointless. Nothing would come of it.

What Does It Mean To Choose Jesus?

The phrase “choose Jesus” might suggest it is like choosing the preferred dish form a menu—a choice where you opt for what strikes you as the best of the bunch, knowing that if your first choice is not available, as second is always possible. But coming savingly to Christ is not like that. When it occurs, there is a sense of inevitability about it, springing from three sources.

First, there is the pressure of the gospel truth that feels too certain to be denied;

Second, there is the sense of God’s presence forcing one to face the reality of Jesus Christ; and

Third, there is the realization that without him, one is lost.

This sense is generated by God’s action of making the first move, what we call prevenient grace (meaning the prompting of the Holy Spirit). There is no commitment to Christ-no “choice for Jesus,” if one prefers to say it that way—apart from this convicting divine action.

The act of the heart in choosing Jesus Christ is not always performed in a single moment, nor is it always performed calmly and clearheadedly. At the surface level there are often crosscurrents of reluctance. C.S. Lewis, dissecting his own conversion story, wrote of “the steady, unrelenting approach of him whom I so earnestly desired most to meet.” He scoffed at the idea that anyone who is not a believer, no matter how religiously inclined, really seeks the real God and the real, living Christ, with their dominating, dictatorial demands for discipleship. (“You might as well speak of the mouse’s search fro the cat”) But in every real conversion, prevenient grace ensures a real change of heart through the irresistible Calvary love of Christ. Then you not only acknowledge the Savior’s reality, but you speak to him and embrace him and hand yourself over to him, not just because you know you should, but because you want to.

Isaac Watts put it into verse this way:

My dear almighty Lord,

My Conqueror and King,

Thy scepter and Thy sword,

Thy reigning grace I sing:

Thine is the power; behold, I sit

In willing bonds before Thy feet.

*A Mini-Biography of Dr. J.I. Packer

J I Packer in study image

“A Speckled Bird”

The son of a working-class man who was in his recollection, “unfit for major responsibility,” James Innell Packer was brought up in Gloucester, England, in an environment that hardly seemed a likely incubator for one of the greatest Christian minds of the twentieth century. Spending his childhood fumbling to fit in, Packer’s intellectual and bookish qualities often estranged him from his peers. “A violent collision with a bread van” served to further remove him from social acceptance. In the incident, after being chased into a street by some schoolboys, he was hit by a van and “Lost a bit of [his] head as a result.” From then on he recalls, he “Used to move around wearing on [his] head an aluminum plate with a rubber pad attached around the edge.” Frustrated by being, in his words, “A speckled bird,” Packer struggled to fit in. But his opportunity to play sports, like cricket, and live actively had been dashed with the van accident. Ultimately, he embraced his own intellectual curiosity and spent the bulk of his childhood reading voraciously.

His Blossoming Faith

Packer grew up going to church because of the habitual attendance of his parents, but it wasn’t until he was in secondary school that he began thinking seriously about the Christian faith. By the time he entered Corpus Christi College at Oxford in 1944, his vigorous study of the Bible and other Christian writers, including C. S. Lewis, had won his intellectual assent for Christianity. However, Packer recalls, it wasn’t until he attended a meeting of the Oxford Christian Union that he finally made, “A personal transaction with the living Lord, the Lord Jesus.”

Packer didn’t solve his social problems by becoming a Christian, and even at college he began feeling an increased sense of isolation. During this time he happened to start reading some of the great Puritan authors, like John Owen and John Bunyan, and found in their works the inspiration to be ordained and subsequently pursue doctoral studies.

Following Packer’s ordination in the Anglican Church, a providential scheduling mix-up on the part of a friend, changed his life forever. Having double-booked himself for an evening, Packer’s friend asked James to speak to an audience in his absence. This speaking engagement not only broke through Packer’s fear of public situations but also introduced him to his future wife, Kit Mullett, who was sitting in the audience. Together they would have three children, Naomi, Ruth, and Martin and, Packer recalls, a slew of pets.

“Centered on the Lord”

Gaining respect in academic circles, Packer wrote his first book, a critique of Christian Fundamentalism called Fundamentalism and the Word of God, in 1958. Knowing God, his most widely read book, was published fifteen years later in 1973. He worked to found the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). He surprised the academic community in 1979, by leaving his Anglican evangelical community to take a position at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Regent flourished because of his presence, growing from a tiny institution into the largest center of theological education in its region. Since arriving at Regent he has published a book every year. Together his books have sold more than three million copies. His wife Kit is quick to point out the source of his success, “His devotion to the Lord is the reason for everything he’s done. His writing, his preaching, his lecturing, his living are all centered on the Lord.” To read more about Packer, a recent biography by Alister McGrath, entitled J. I. Packer, gives a careful and sensitive examination of his life.

Book Review: Defending Inerrancy Norman L. Gesiler and William C. Roach

A Rock in a Sea of Pluralism

We live in a culture where cultural preferences continue to overtake the foundational beliefs of the scholars who train the leaders of our country and churches. Many scholars are feeding our institutions, churches, and future leaders with doubts about the truth, authority, and sufficiency of the Bible. This book is a tour de force dealing with the history, challenges, and practical ramifications of whether or not the Bible is indeed God’s Word and thus true for all faith and practice for all time.

One of the most beneficial aspects of this book is how the authors address modern attacks on the Scriptures by the likes of Clark Pinnock, Bart Ehrman, Peter Enns, and others. Also, the last six chapters on the nature of God, truth, language, hermeneutics, incarnation, and answering objections to inerrancy are outstanding.

Living in a sea of doubt, confusion, and cultural preference does not mean that we should succumb to the anti-supernaturalistic bias of our culture, but Geisler and Roach cogently demonstrate that God doesn’t change, and neither does His authoritative inspired Words from Genesis to Revelation. I highly recommend this book to fortify your faith via the plethora of evidence there is for God’s revelation to man – and thus the most important place we can go for truth resulting in faith and practice for all mankind. God’s Word like the Word Incarnate is the Rock we need to believe and stand firm on in a stormy sea of cultural change. As the great hymn says, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

Our reason for living, purpose in life, how to know God personally, and all the greatest issues and answers of our time are contained in the Bible – we have reason to believe – and evidences galore that the Bible is absolutely true and contains the message of hope that the world needs to desperately hear about Jesus Christ – who is Savior and Lord.

The Bible is not one voice among many – it is the one voice through which all others must be filtered. Thank you Norm and William for giving us such an excellent book on the Book of Books.

Book Review Knowing God by J. I. Packer

A Classic on the Character and Attributes of God

 The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a classic as that which is “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.” Therefore, based on this definition I dub Packer’s book a “classic.” It is simply one of the most readable, and enjoyable books on the doctrine of God’s character and attributes in modern times. Originally written in 1971 – this book will be reprinted again and again for its wonderful portrayal of the transcendence and immanence of God and how we can know Him personally because of how He has revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures.

We can know God intimately and personally because He has chosen to come into human history through the Person and Work of Christ and the most direct route to knowing God is clearly summarized in the pages of this book as Packer “unpacks” what it means to know God with warmth, depth, reverence, and great joy. I love and agree with what my favorite theologian R.C. Sproul has to say about this book, “Knowing God is a masterpiece by a master theologian. It serves as a wake-up call for those who are asleep to the majesty of God.”

Perhaps the evangelist Billy Graham uttered the best tribute I have read on this book, “A hundred years from now only a handful of books written today will still be widely read and accepted as Christian classics. Dr. James I Packer’s Knowing God may well prove to be one of them. A gifted theologian and writer, Dr. Packer has the rare ability to deal with profound and basic spiritual truths in a practical and highly readable way. This book will help every reader grasp in a fuller way one of the Bible’s greatest truths: that we can know God personally, because God wants us to know him.”

I can attest to the fact that the greatest need of every human being on the planet is to know God personally through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. J. I. Packer’s book is MUST reading for anyone who wants to know God personally, intimately, daily, for this life, and for eternity.