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The Good Works of Sola Scriptura

Is Scripture alone sufficient for salvation? Or is it a sixteenth century invention by Protestants?

I am no defender of the Protestant tradition. I aim for the truth above all else, and if the truth is Protestant, then so be it. The five solae of the Reformation, for instance, at first glance seem to flagrantly reject, out of an adverse reaction to sixteenth century Catholic soteriology of works, the necessity and vitality of love—sola caritas, if you will—that charitable, self-sacrificial “agape” love for God and His people, spoken of by Christ and his apostles, that we all ought to walk in. Truth be told, some Protestants of the Evangelical and Reformed traditions do push too far; they reject “faith working through love” as salvific (Galatians 5:6) and holdfast to “faith alone” (sola fides) as the only necessary requirement for salvation (cf. James 2:14,24), which, by deduction, means a person does not need love at all to be saved. A flat-out contradiction, and a dangerous one at that (Luke 10:25-27; John 5:39-44, 14:15-17, 15:9-17; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3,13; 1 John 3:10,14,18,23, 4:7-21). In this line of reasoning, love is not foundational for salvation because love is a verb, it is an action word, and Paul famously says that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-10). Love includes good works, you see, grammatically speaking. God forbid we do something!

Most Protestants, however, do not hold to this rather extreme, fringe view. In my experience, most teach that a person truly saved by grace will love and produce good works through faith as a result of their salvation (cf. James 2:22). Faith is just the beginning. That initial trust in Christ is what gets you through the door, so to speak (John 10:7), and the Council of Trent agrees with this interpretation to some extent. Granted, Paul does flip the priority around. He does not say it is ‘love working through faith’ but rather “faith working through love”. Indeed, Paul famously calls love greater than faith (1 Corinthians 13:1-3,13) and Jesus marks love as integral to following the greatest command of God, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”” (Galatians 5:13-15; Mark 12:29-31) What is a believer to believe?

Well, for one, it does not mean Protestants are completely off-base for prioritizing faith. It is very clear that faith is necessary to follow Christ and Paul says elsewhere that the love for a brother requires faith, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:20-23). Faith must express itself, thus obedience to Christ’s commands and good works must come from faith. A good work is not a good work independent of faith, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2:26) Therefore, it is not faith and works, as if the two offer separate paths of salvation (James 2:18), it is faith through works, that is the atoning work of Christ in and through you (1 John 4:7-9; Philippians 2:12-13). Plainly put; God is love, and “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:15-19). You cannot divorce love from God, just as you cannot split love from goodness or divide good works from God’s works. When you do, weird legalistic theology brews[1]. Goodness and love unified is integral to the essence of God and His atoning work in and through us. But what has torn the Western World apart is the logical order and priority structure of salvation. What comes first? Or rather, what takes precedent when it comes to salvation: faith or love? The thief on the cross or the apostle James? That is the question. A chicken-or-egg dilemma, if there ever were one.

And I think that is what seems to be the trouble, here.

What is Sola Scriptura?

There is widespread confusion surrounding the meaning and principle of sola Scriptura, on all fronts—Catholic, Orthodox and even Protestants themselves (our lack of institutional unity has caused quite the ruckus, if I’m being frank). The polemic, and albeit teachings by some denominations and movements (i.e., King James only), all lend credit to this confusion. What does sola Scriptura mean? In English, it translates Scripture alone. But the word “alone”, here, does not mean “by itself” (it is one of five solae, after all). It just means standard. A standard for what, exactly? For Christian doctrine. Sola Scriptura does not mean, as I often hear, that Christians ‘only need the Bible’ as if Scripture takes precedent above the Spirit, as if faith is free from love, as if the Church is liberated from tradition. This is polemic, propaganda, or simply poor understanding. It just means Scripture is sufficient for doctrine. Doctrine for what, exactly? Doctrine that can lead to salvation. Therefore, in its most basic form, sola Scriptura means: Scripture is sufficient for soteriological doctrine. Though, not sufficient for salvation per se. A person does need faith, after all. This means that all Christian tradition must yield to Scripture—the teachings of Christ and his immediate apostles—and is kept in check by it.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…

2 Timothy 3:16

No doctrine espoused in a Christian tradition can contradict what Jesus or the apostles plainly taught. This is akin to Moses ratifying the covenantal letter of the Law on Sinai with the people Israel and then the prophets, who come later, speaking truths from the Spirit of the Law without contradicting the letter of the Law; in the same way, Christ is ‘the prophet like Moses’ who ratifies the new covenant with God’s people and then the apostles, who come later, are His prophets speaking truths from the Spirit of the Law without contradicting the letter of the Law of Christ (Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Acts 3:22-26, 4:1-2; John 14:15-17; 1 John 4:21). Similarly, since the Holy Spirit is the author and overseer of Scripture and Tradition, of the Lawmaker and the lawkeepers, He cannot contradict Himself lest He be a liar. Hence, the notion that Scripture is a standard for the Christian life and its traditions, because Tradition, like the prophets/apostles who come after, maintains the letter of the Law established by Christ through the Spirit of the Law, especially concerning matters not explicitly addressed or taught in Scripture, in order to protect and preserve the original doctrines of salvation from slipping into heresy—such as, from teachings becoming necessary for salvation that are not necessary for salvation.

Doctrinal Development

Now Catholicism agrees to this to some extent because they affirm doctrinal development, that a doctrine can grow in understanding, but not change in its original meaning. To grasp this principle, picture the original meaning to be a tree, and its development is its growth from seed to sapling to an oak deepening its roots and growing entirely new branches, leaves, or fruit; throughout its growth process, it is still fundamentally a tree despite its new shape or form. This word picture also applies for identifying false doctrine, as well. A tree will never blossom potatoes. So, if a tree appears to be doing something a tree ought not to do, or if its leaves are withering and it stops producing fruit, we have a false or dead tree in our midst (Luke 6:43-45, 13:6-9). I find this very reasonable, given that the Spirit is “alive and active” and continues to reveal truths in how we understand things (Hebrews 4:11-12), but does not establish new saving truths. A prime example of this is the Holy Trinity: One God in three persons is plainly taught in the New Testament, but not so rigorously defined as it is by the Ecumenical Councils, which dig that much deeper in order to defend Christian doctrine from “secret” heresies (2 Peter 2:1). But our salvation is not contingent upon our intellectual grasp of the Trinity—praise God!—it is predicated on our faith in the fact that God knows more than we do. Long story short, doctrinal development is not at odds with sola Scriptura, as far as I can tell, because its original meaning takes precedent over its understanding. The former dictates the latter. Scripture contains root doctrines directly from the mouth of God—Jesus Christ—so that teachers born of the Spirit, the same Spirit who wrote Scriptures and begot the Son of God through the virgin Mary, can deepen its understanding without contradicting it, so that when a tree grows potatoes we can rightly tell it is not a true tree and must be cut from its roots (cf. Romans 11:17-23).

Is Scripture Sufficient?

Nevertheless, it is still that ‘sufficiency’ part that bothers our Catholic brethren so dearly. Why so? Because in Roman Catholicism, infallible teachers are required to interpret an infallible book, which means the Church and its sacred Tradition is ultimately the source of sufficient doctrine and, thus, soteriological doctrine––teachings profitable for salvation. Scripture fully depends on sacred Tradition to be sufficient, which means that salvation fully depends on institutional doctrine to also be sufficient. It is the other way around. Rather than Scripture be the head of the household, the magisterium is. Granted, there is merit to this understanding in the sense that the Holy Spirit must lead interpretation of Scripture; only the sacred can understand what is sacred (Matthew 7:6). But the Church is just the bride; it is not Christ infallible, even though Christ may live within. Scripture, on the other hand, is the word of Christ, who is the Word of God, who is the head of the Church.

You see the weight of this, don’t you? By coming against Tradition, or by placing Scripture above Tradition in priority, I unavoidably come against a Catholic’s perceived assurance of salvation! I come against the Spirit of the Church. I don’t believe I am, if indeed the Spirit of the Church is Christ, but that is how it is taken. And because of the weight that comes with that, there is much tension and polemic against Protestants.

For instance, I hear quite frequently that sola Scriptura is not even found in Scripture. That it, too, is just a tradition of the sixteenth century. But is that true? Let’s examine Scripture and find out:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom[s] you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound [healthy] teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
– 2 Timothy 3:12-17, 4:1-5

Notice, here, that Paul tells Timothy Scripture and the teachers together are “able to make a person wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”, and that he must remember the people who taught him (vv.14-15). The two cannot be divorced from each other. Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). But immediately after addressing that mutually exclusive relationship, Paul puts the onus and priority for salvation on Scripture itself. Notice that he refers to the teachers “whom[s] you learned” in the past tense and does not refer to the teachers and Scripture together in the past tense, as if to say, “which were able to make you wise for salvation,” or together in the present tense as if the two were presently of equal authority, rather he only refers to the sacred writings in the present tense “which are able to make you wise for salvation” as well as “faith through Christ Jesus”. Read Paul again carefully.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom[s] you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
– 2 Timothy 3:14-17

Paul, then, carries that focus on Scriptural priority forward to the next verses 16 and 17. He calls Scripture theopneustos in Greek, which literally translates “God-breathed,” referring to its divine inspiration in a way like Adam was given life by the breath of God (Genesis 2:7). In other words, Scripture, too, is created for a special purpose, which he calls ōphelimos or “profitable,” a useful or beneficial thing that yields a profit, which he lists is for doctrine, for testing proof against it, for wise counsel and sharp rebuke, for discriminating truths from falsehoods, and for discipleship, so that, he says very clearly, “the man of God may be complete” for “every good work”. The man of God, then, yields a profit by receiving wisdom from Scripture for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. To understand this further, the term “man of God” echoes an Old Testament colloquialism of a prophet (Deuteronomy 33:1; 1 Samuel 9:6-8; 1 Kings 12:21-23, 13:1-4; Nehemiah 12:24), and otherwise means a “messenger of God,” which is why Paul applies the term to spiritual leaders and teachers, deacons and elders, like Timothy (1 Timothy 6:11). Paul is very clearly saying, here, that Scripture is sufficient, it is enough, it is all that’s needed to “complete” the Christian leader in doing “every” good work, to protect against false teachers and false doctrines, so that one’s ministry may be fulfilled. How can this man of God be complete, then, if it excludes salvation? What else can the word complete refer to, here? I have read “adequate,” “enough,” “perfect” (KJV) and even “proficient” in Catholic translations (NCB, NRSVSE), which is, quite frankly, more than enough. More than enough for what, exactly? To fulfill the responsibilities Christ has assigned his followers.

From Faith for Works

No doubt Ephesians 2:8-10 comes to mind:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Notice the relationship Paul draws, here. Believers are new creations in Christ “for good works,” and Scripture completes the man of God by equipping them for “every good work”. Our responsibility, as a Christian, is to do good works. Not that Scripture lists every good work to do, like it is a checklist or itinerary, but that the man of God is spiritually equipped by the Scriptures first in order to do every kind of good work required of him through faith. Which is what James says: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22)

Now, Protestants do not argue that good works are required for salvation, they strongly advocate against it, rather it is taught that good works are the result of one’s salvation; good works are the Christian’s sacred duty as followers of Christ, a duty that will come about through faith. Catholicism, however, teaches you are saved by faith and good works, not as a result of faith but as a requirement of faith. In harmonizing these passages, however, a Christian is “completed” by good works—whether this is for full rewards or full salvation is not the discussion today. What is for discussion is that Paul urges Timothy that “the sacred writings” of Scripture is profitable and sufficient to teach soteriological doctrine, to make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”. A Christian, therefore, can be equipped for “every” good work through Scripture—what does the word “every” exclude? So, whether or not good works are the result of your salvation, as Protestants teach, or the requirement of it, as Catholics teach, Scripture is still sufficient to produce these good works from the inside out to meet the demands required for salvation. Not just a minimum standard, either, but to complete a man through faith in spiritual wisdom from above, to be peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere, sober-minded, willing to endure suffering, to persevere, to do the work of an evangelist, to “preach the word”, to “fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:2,5; James 3:17).

What do we conclude? Just as faith depends on the love of God to be fruitful, the man of God is made competent and able to meet all demands for salvation through the teachings of Scripture alone. I repeat: Scripture is sufficient for soteriological doctrine. Scripture is what’s needed to ward off false doctrine for when the time comes that people will no longer endure sound doctrine, but with itching ears accumulate for themselves teachers who suit their own passions, who will turn them away from listening to the truth and lead them into myth and delusion. Anyone who teaches otherwise contradicts the tradition Paul handed down to Timothy.

Matlock Bobechko is the Chief Operating/Creative Officer of Bible Discovery. He is an eclectic Christian thinker and writer, award-winning screenwriter and short filmmaker. He writes a weekly blog on theology, apologetics, and philosophy called Meet Me at the Oak. He is also an Elder at his local church.

[1] I don’t see why sola caritas cannot be an emphasis of solus Christus (Christ alone). On that note, how else do we receive grace if not from love? Where do we think grace comes from? In other words, sola gratia (grace alone) and solus Christus together imply sola caritas (love alone).