Reading Scripture with Luther and Calvin
Understanding Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide
As we approach the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation’s beginnings, we remember names like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and John Knox. We remember confessional statements like the Augsburg Confession, the Three Forms of Unity, and the Westminster Standards. To honor the Reformers and their legacy, however, we must remember the Bible.
The Reformation was first and foremost a recovery of the Bible in the church. For many reasons, the Bible’s authority and doctrine had long been obscured in the church’s teaching and life. The Reformers’ recovery project ran along two main lines. First, the Reformers wanted the church to grasp the Bible as the only rule of her faith and obedience. Second, the Reformers wanted the church to recover one of the central truths of the Bible, namely that the sinner is justified by faith alone, apart from the works of the law. These two principles – sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) and sola fide (“by faith alone”) – by no means exhausted the Reformation’s work. But they aptly captured the heart and soul of the aspirations and accomplishments of the Reformers.
To appreciate these principles, we may briefly look at how two leading Reformers—Martin Luther and John Calvin—articulated them in light of the Bible’s teaching. John Calvin’s reflections on Deuteronomy 29:29 help us better to grasp sola Scriptura. Martin Luther’s reflections on Romans 1:16-17 help us better to grasp sola fide.
Sola Scriptura – John Calvin & Deuteronomy 29:29
Deuteronomy 29:29 is among Moses’ last words to Israel before his death and before Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. He exhorts Israel to heed what God has spoken to them, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Moses, Calvin observes, “condemn[s the]…audacity and excessive curiosity” of those who “would desire to be God’s counselors, and to penetrate into the deepest recesses of heaven.” To do so is folly. “If we pass our bounds by being more inquisitive than is lawful for us, we enter into a maze.” Rather, faith “look[s] up to God’s secret providence with awe.”
Faith should occupy itself with the Word – “now no abyss is here; rather, a way in which we ought to walk in safety, and a lamp to guide our feet, the light of life, and the school of sure and clear truth.” In the Word, “God’s will is declared to us, as if he were openly speaking to us.”
Those who are uneducated may not excuse themselves from the work of learning the Word. “The law is set forth to all folk both little and great; God would have us all to be instructed therein.” If someone does not understand the Bible, then he should “crave the spirit of understanding, and it shall be given unto [him].” Not only is the Word meant to be read by all kinds of people, but it is also designed to benefit all kinds of people. The Word “is for our profit. We shall there find wherewith to be edified, and we know that God would have our life to be ruled thereby.”
In summary, Calvin argues that the only place where we may safely consult the mind of God is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The Scriptures are the very Word of God. To nowhere else has God directed us in order to learn what he would have us to believe and to live in reference to our salvation. God has authored the Bible for the learned and the unlearned, both of whom are to avail themselves of the helps that God kindly supplies to understand his Word. And the Word is for practical, not speculative purposes. Speculation is no more acceptable in regard to Scripture than it is in regard to the secret counsel of God.
Sola Fide – Martin Luther & Romans 1:16-17
Romans 1:16-17 is the thesis of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
At the heart of the saving gospel, Paul says, is the “righteousness of God” that God has revealed to faith. As a monk and a scholar, the young Martin Luther struggled to understand what Paul meant by the “righteousness of God.” Many in the medieval church believed that a person needed to acquire more and more inward righteousness in order to be right with God. One would become more and more righteous by obeying God, with the assistance of the grace dispensed in the church’s sacraments. Only on the Day of Judgment could a person stand before the righteous God with an inward righteousness that met with this God’s approval. This teaching fostered uncertainty of salvation and lack of assurance in young Luther.
What particularly tormented Luther was the fact that, as a sinner, he could not measure up to the perfect standard of God’s righteousness. As much he strived to obey God and to repent of all his sins, he could not find peace with God. Reflecting later on this period of his life, Luther put it bluntly: “I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.”
But Luther did not give up his attempts to understand what Paul meant by the gift of the righteousness of God. Luther came to realize that the righteousness of God in the gospel is the unmerited gift of God to sinners. This is the righteousness that Jesus Christ secured in his life, death, and resurrection for the ungodly. It is given at the beginning of the Christian life, not at its conclusion. This righteousness is at once imputed or reckoned to the sinner in God’s courtroom, not gradually and progressively infused into him. It is received through faith alone, apart from anything that the individual has done, does, or will do. The justified person is not counted righteous because of his own works but solely because of Christ’s works, imputed to the sinner and received through faith alone.
Once Luther came to this realization, he testified, “All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates … I exalted this sweetest word of mine, ‘the [righteousness] of God,’ with as much love as before I had hated it with hate.” Luther would never again be the same, and neither would the Christian church.
The authority of the Bible and justification by faith alone capture the heart of the Reformation project. More importantly, they reflect some of the most basic teachings of the Bible. May this anniversary year prompt the church to “take root downward” in these precious truths so that, by the grace of God, we may “bear fruit upward” (Isa. 37:31).
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, trans. Charles William Bingham, 4 vols. (1852; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 1.411.
 John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, trans. Arthur Golding (1587; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 1044. I have modernized the Elizabethan English of the translation.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.213 (=1.17.2).
 Calvin, Commentaries, 1.411.
 Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, 1044.
 The quoted material in this section comes from the Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545) by Dr. Martin Luther, 1483-1546 Translated by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB from the “Vorrede zu Band I der Opera Latina der Wittenberger Ausgabe. 1545” in vol. 4 of _Luthers Werke in Auswahl_, ed. Otto Clemen, 6th ed., (Berlin: de Gruyter. 1967). pp. 421-428, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1519luther-tower.asp.