Sola Scriptura Protects Christian Liberty

In April 1521, when Martin Luther stood before the powers of this world at the Diet of Worms, he did so on the basis of  the sole, unique, and final authority of God’s Word. Luther confessed that his conscience was bound by the Word of God. Popes and councils have erred and have contradicted each other. So they have. We call Luther’s principle, Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone. This principle does not mean what it has often been made to say by American evangelicals, i.e., “No creed but Christ,” or “We read Scripture as if no one else has ever read it before,” or “I and my Bible are the sole authority.” The first is contradictory on its face because it is a very short, very inadequate creed. It also contradicts Scripture, since Scripture itself contains creedal statements, e.g., Deuteronomy 6:4 and 1 Timothy 3:16 (not to mention the several “faithful sayings” of the pastoral epistles). The second contradicts Scripture itself, since the Scriptures themselves seek to understand Scripture in light of the rest of Scripture and redemptive history (e.g., 1 Pet 1:10). It never occurred to the writers of the New Testament Scripture that they were reading the Hebrew Scriptures as if no one had ever read them before nor as if they were reading them in isolation from each other. They read the Hebrew Scriptures together at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). The third is self-contradictory because it make the “I” and not actually Scripture the final authority . It is biblicistic and radically individualistic. The Anabaptists were radical individualists. The Socinians were radical individualists. The children of the Second Great Awakening are radical individualists, but the Reformed are not and have never been. On this see Recovering the Reformed Confession.

Sola Scriptura asserts that the Scriptures are the final, unique, and therefore sole magisterial authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. It asserts the sufficiency of Holy Scripture for the Christian faith, Christian worship, and the Christian life. It does not make the Scriptures into a manual for mechanics and bakers but recognizes that Scripture is enough for what it intends to do, that its authority is final where it speaks. This is what Luther was confessing at Worms against Rome, who sought to impose imagined continuing revelation (via the fabricated unwritten apostolic tradition and here). We confess that Scripture is sufficiently clear (perspicuitas) so that what must be known for salvation, the Christian life, and worship can be known in Scripture. As we say in Westminster Confession 1.7,

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Thus, the Reformed confess:

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils or decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men or of themselves liars, and more van than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us saying, Test the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: any one comes to you and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house (Belgic Confession, art. 7).

We confess this final, unique, and thus sole (sola) against the imagined unwritten apostolic tradition of the Roman communion but also against Protestant communions who compromise the sufficiency of Scripture and thus its unique authority. The Reformed were particularly zealous to apply this doctrine to the practice of Christian worship. The Westminster Divines had experience with attempts by the Anglican establishment to bind their consciences and those of their forebears. As early as the 1540s, it became clear that there were those within Anglicanism who did not accept the doctrine of sola Scriptura as authorities sought to impose certain priestly (not merely ministerial) vestments upon the ministers. When some objected to being made to dress like Roman priests as a condition of conducting their ministry, the authorities said that the vestments were “indifferent” (adiaphora). The Reformed replied that if they are indifferent, then ministers are free not to wear them but, of course, as you can predict, that did not satisfy the authorities at all. They argued that since Scripture has not forbidden vestments, the church is free to impose them. This was, in principle, a fatal compromise of the sola Scriptura principle. The Reformed rebelled in the spirit of Luther. The tension between these two principles would emerge time and again and ultimately helped to produce the Westminster Assembly itself in the 1640s.

Remarkably, the Westminster Assembly, which included Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Congregationalists, adopted a ringing endorsement of sola Scriptura as applied to Christian worship in the Directory for Publick Worship (1644). They also confessed together:

…But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (WCF 21.1).

This language was a direct response to Archbishop Laud and to the others Bishops who sought to impose the Book of Common Prayer (to which the Directory spoke explicitly), vestments, and other infringements upon Christian liberty. More about that below. They articulated a very different principle. The Westminster Divines, with the Synod of Dort, and with the rest of the Reformed churches across Europe asserted that we may do in worship only what is commanded. Calvin called this the “rule of worship.”

For Reformed and Presbyterian Christians the question is not, “does the Bible allow the church to practice it” That’ is not the biblical principle of worship. The biblical principle, the question is: “Has God commanded it?” Thus, there is, at this point, a great gulf between the Anglican and Lutheran principle and the Reformed. The Anglo-Lutheran question (“is it forbidden?”) is an unintentionally conscience-binding principle that effectively undermines sola Scriptura. Calvin railed against this principle which was embodied in the Leipzig Interim (1548), which he lambasted as the “Adultero-Interim” precisely because it corrupts the biblical principle of worship. For more on this see “Calvin’s Principle of Worship,” in ed. David Hall, Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of his Quincentenary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 247–69. It was in defense of sola Scriptura and especially as it applies to the Christian life and worship that William Ames wrote his  Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies (1633) against his Anglican Bishop father-in-law and that provoked George Gillespie to write English Popish Ceremonies, of which Chris Coldwell has produced a brilliant 2nd modern edition. These are classic Reformed accounts of sola Scriptura as applied to Christian worship.

We also appealed to sola Scriptura as a bulwark against infringements upon Christian liberty. In WCF 20.2 we confess:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

In recent years it has become evident that some in the NAPARC (confessional Presbyterian and Reformed) world embraced the practice of Lent in an attempt to make the church more relevant to the daily life of the Christian, as a helpful “spiritual discipline.” As I have been endeavoring to point out, this approach to relevance leads to Rome because it does what the medieval church did and for the very same reasons. It is quite simply impossible for 21st-century Reformed Christians to imitate the early medieval church without ending up where the medieval church ended: Trent.

What is more troubling about this trend is not so much the practice of Lent itself but the principle upon which it is justified. That principle necessarily is the Angl0-Lutheran principle: “It is not forbidden.” This is not the biblical principle. It is not the Reformed principle but it is the guideline followed by too many, too easily in the P & R world. It is not hard to get P&R folk to confess the rule of worship:

Q: What is the rule of worship?

A: We may do in worship only what God has commanded.

It is not hard, however, to expose a contradiction:

Q: Why then do you do x in your service?

A: Because it is not forbidden.

Clearly, the justification for x relies on a competing principle to the rule of worship. This is not an imaginary scene. I have had this conversation with students, ministers, elders, and laity in P & R churches. In too many cases, the actual operating principle is not the rule of worship articulated in Heidelberg Catechism 97–98, Belgic 7, or WCF 21 but the so-called “normative principle.”

The rise of Lent among us is just one symptom of a deeper, underlying problem. We need to recognize and admit to ourselves the tension between our confession and our (too often) operating principle. Then, when we have admitted to ourselves the tension, let us resolve it in favor of sola Scriptura as we surely must.


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  1. What precisely does scripture state regarding what elements must be present and what must not for Sunday worship?
    If not constrained why can’t a person, church or churches voluntarily observe a season like lent?

    • Michial,

      The question is not what the believer may do privately. The question is what the church as an institution may impose on the Christian. The return of Lent among P & R types does signal a certain lack of historical awareness to be sure but it is the observance of Lent by P & R congregations that is troubling.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your posts on Lent and your interaction with me on this subject. They have caused me to look to scriptures and the reformers thought on these things for guidance. While The practices of Lent, Advent, Christmas, and other such things seem to be wise at first glance; they seem to totally undermine what we believe concerning worship. I routinely interact with Evangelicals on worship and remind them to look no further than the means that God has provided (The preaching of the Word, Baptism, Lords Supper). Why then are we ourselves looking to ancient traditions to add to these things. Are we not reminded weekly of Christ’s acts of redemption in these things?
    So to anyone considering practicing Ash Wednesday or any other man made ritual I point you to the ordinary means of Grace which God had provided. Thanks again Dr. Clark!

  3. ” Q: Why then do you do x in your service?
    A: Because it is not forbidden.”

    With the unfortunate corollary these days many times being something on the order of: “Anybody that asks/questions/objects is mean/a hater/ legalistic/unloving”.

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