Sola Scriptura: The Sufficiency of Scripture in Expository Preaching

Lawson (2)Dr. Steve Lawson (original source here)

As the church of Jesus Christ enters the twenty-first century, she once again finds herself standing at a dangerous crossroad. Two roads stand before her, both of which are marked “truth.” One is paved with the lethal lies of Satan, the other with the life-giving truths of Scripture.

Confronted with these two choices, many sectors of the present day church have abandoned their once tightly-held commitment to the authority of Scripture, and the consequences have been nothing less than devastating. Choosing to follow liberal theology with its higher criticism, many have arrived at destinations previously thought to be unthinkable: inclusive universalism, radical feminism, same-sex marriages, annihilationism, and open, even worse, theism. Sad to say, this broad path has proven to be a deadly detour to the destruction of many.

Yet, in the midst of this rampant apostasy, a most amazing phenomenon has occurred, a modern Reformation of sorts. A renewed commitment to biblical inerrancy has emerged in isolated pockets of the church, a conservative resurgence that has signaled a return to a fundamental belief in the inspired, infallible Word of God. In these days, many have chosen to return to old paths, a road paved with biblical authority, and for this much thanks should be offered to God.

But having safely negotiated this crossroad, a second intersection now looms on the evangelical horizon, one equally threatening. Writing shortly before his recent death, James Montgomery Boice, pastor of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, observed that while many churches now assert biblical authority, they equivocate on biblical sufficiency. Boice writes, “Our problem is in deciding whether the Bible is sufficient for the church’s life and work. We confess its authority, but we discount its ability to do what is necessary to draw unbelievers to Christ, enable us to grow in godliness, provide direction for our lives, and transform and revitalize society.”1

With penetrating insight, Boice then added, “In the sixteenth century, the battle was against those who wanted to add church traditions to Scripture, but in our day the battle is against those who have to use worldly means to do God’s work.”2 The sufficiency of Scripture, Boice argues, is the urgent issue of the day which must be addressed. He is correct.

The sufficiency of Scripture can best be defined as the Bible’s supernatural ability, when rightly proclaimed and properly followed, to produce any and all spiritual results intended by God. Referred to as sola Scriptura by the Reformers, this core truth does not claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture, nor does it imply that everything Jesus or the apostles taught is preserved in Scripture (Jn. 20:30; 21:25). Rather, the sufficiency of Scripture affirms that everything necessary for the salvation of sinners, the sanctification of believers, and the spiritual direction of ministry is provided by God’s Word. Psalm 19:7 affirms this central truth when it declares “the law of the Lord is perfect” (emphasis added), meaning it is whole, complete, lacking nothing, a comprehensive treatment of truth.3 The Scripture, Paul writes, makes the man of God “adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). This said, the Bible claims a divine potency, for itself, a supernatural ability, if you will, to more than adequately carry out God’s work in the world.

This commitment has long been the time-tested position of most evangelical churches over the last 350 years. Written in 1647, the Westminster Confession of Faith affirmed “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men”.4 Thus, the sufficiency of Scripture has long been a defining mark of evangelical faith and a chief cornerstone of biblical orthodoxy. Sola Scriptura was the battle cry of the Reformers and has shaped the church for the centuries that have followed.

But in this present hour, there has been a strange departure from this once firm position on the sufficiency of Scripture. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the shrinking power of the evangelical pulpit. Trendy worship styles, worldly entertainment, crass pragmatism, pop psychology, and the like are all competing against the centrality of biblical exposition. Throughout the evangelical world, preaching is becoming watered down with heavy doses of cultural wisdom, therapeutic advice, psycho babble, mystical intuitions, positive thinking, and political agendas, all mixed together with a barrage of personal anecdotes.

This present famine of biblical preaching is light years removed from the theologically steeped expositions of previous generations and can only be explained by a vanishing confidence in the power of Scripture itself. The crisis now confronting Bible-believing, churches, organizations and institutions, whether they realize it or not, is this matter of the ability of Scripture to accomplish God’s intended work.

Putting one’s finger directly on the live nerve of the issue, the question must be raised: Is the Word of God, when rightly taught and carefully followed, capable of performing all that is necessary to fulfill God’s purposes in the church? This is the question of the hour. Until men of God are fully persuaded, not only of Scripture’s authority, but of its ability both to will and work all of God’s good pleasure, they will not preach the Word with utter abandonment, passion, and precision.

Now more than ever, Scripture must be reexamined and preachers reminded what the Bible says of itself regarding its intrinsic power to save, sanctify, and successfully direct lives and ministries. In so doing, may we recommit ourselves to the essential truth of the sufficiency of Scripture and preach the Word with greater resolve The following are essential areas in which the Bible’s supernatural potency must be recognized:

Power to Connect

First, Scripture possesses a supernatural power to connect with human hearts. The Bible says of itself, “For the word of God is alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12a). It literally claims to be “alive” (zoe), full of divine life, supernatural life, the very life of God Himself. Every other book is a dead book, its pages devoid of life, but not the Bible. God’s Word is alive, always relevant, always fresh, never obsolete, never stagnant. Martin Luther writes, “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; It has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold on me.”5 Echoing this same commitment, John MacArthur writes, “In every generation, to every person who picks it up, it is alive, living, and fresh.”6 This is to say, nothing connects with human lives like God’s Word — nothing!

Furthermore, the Bible is “active” (energies), the same Greek word from which we draw our English word “energy.” This means that the Scripture is full of divine energy, tirelessly working, relentlessly executing God’s purposes. God has said, “So shall My word be which goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Wherever God’s Word goes forth, it is always working to accomplish God’s will, always succeeding in the work for which it is intended.

But sad to say, in a quest to be relevant, many preachers so overly saturate their messages with contemporary sources, present day references, and modern colloquial language, to the point that they are jettisoning a thorough presentation of biblical truth. These “cutting-edge” preachers are soft-peddling the Bible and the irony is, they are becoming the very thing they least seek to be — outdated. Truth be known, the Scripture is the most “cutting-edge” book in existence, literally, being sharper than any two-edged sword. The preacher does not have to make the Bible relevant; it is relevant. Seeing that the Bible is a living, breathing book, perennially fresh, forever relevant, full of timeless truths, why preach anything else?

Power to Convict

Second, not only does the Scripture possess the power to connect with hearts, it is also endued with supernatural ability to convict hearts. Again we read, the Bible is “sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12b). This means, God’s Word is infinitely more powerful and penetrating than any man-made message.

Philip Hughes notes, the Bible “never fails to cut; there is no blunt side to it.”7 The Scripture is a divine dagger Charles Spurgeon said, one that is “all edge and no blunt side.”8

It is “two-edged” in that it possesses the ability to cut both ways, that is, it is able to build up and tear down, comfort and afflict, harden and soften, even save and damn. Inflicting no mere “flesh wound,” Scripture cuts to the bone, exposing the inner recesses of any person’s heart, and reveals the depths of man’s depravity. God’s Word is a discerner of hearts, possessing a living insight into the state of a person’s inner life. John MacArthur emphatically states,
“Through the Bible, the Holy Spirit is able to split me wide open and reveal to me my faults, my needs, my weaknesses — my sins.”9

It is this fundamental belief in the power of the Word to convict hearts that is so absolutely critical for any preacher. No one can be saved until they are acutely aware of their lost condition, and the expositor must be deeply convinced that nothing exposes the lost condition of a sinner but preaching the depths of God’s Word. Possessing the supernatural capacity to cut into the innermost recesses of a human soul, the Word slices far deeper than mere felt needs — that is, those shallow feelings which only lie on the surface. Instead, the living Word of God cuts deeply “like a hot knife through butter”10 to a person’s real needs, which remain unfelt until they are probed by the Word.

This is precisely what occurred on the day of Pentecost. As the apostle Peter preached God’s Word and his hearers came under deep conviction, suddenly, they “were pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:37). This word “pierced” (katanusso) means, literally, “stabbed to the heart”11 like a sharp knife thrust into one’s chest. John Stott notes that those who heard Peter were “cut to the heart, that is, convicted of sin and conscience-stricken.”12 Only the Word could do this. Thus, Simon Kistemaker rightly concludes, “Their hearts were pierced by guilt so that they became deeply troubled.”13 This is what occurs when the Word is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Bible produces a sharp pain to the soul, a deep remorse over sin, necessary for salvation.

Facing the hardness of men’s hearts in his day, John Calvin wrote, “There is nothing so hard or strong in a man, nothing so hidden, that the powerful Word cannot pervade.”14 Unlike the superficial, synthetic messages of this age, God’s Word is able to cut to the core of a person, leaving him flayed, exposed, and convicted. The Holy Scripture is the most powerful cutting instrument known to the preacher, the only scalpel that is able to penetrate human hearts, convict of sin, and expose human depravity. If Scripture is so powerful, being able to reveal one’s sin and true need for Christ, why preach anything else?

Power to Convert

Beyond having the power to convict, the Bible also possesses the power to convert. The apostle Peter wrote, “For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). Just as a seed contains the germ and energy of life, so does God’s Word. It is through this living Word that we are born again and made alive spiritually.

The imperishable seed, God’s Word, contains the principle of new life within it and is able to generate spiritual life in the dead souls of men. In fact, Paul actually calls it the “word of life” (Phil. 2:16). By the working of God’s Spirit, the Word alone can engender faith in the human heart (Rom. 10:17). The preacher’s emotional appeals, colorful illustrations, and captivating stories may stir the emotions, but they cannot create life in the human heart. There can be no true, saving faith in Christ until His life-giving Word is sown into a heart sovereignly tilled and made fertile by the Spirit. Only then will the Word of God germinate and bring forth new life.

This is precisely what occurred on the day of Pentecost. The apostle Peter preached the Word of God, directly citing Joel 2:28-32, Psalm 16:8-11, 132:11, 2 Samuel 17:12, Psalm 89:3, and Psalm 110:1, and a great harvest of souls resulted. The Bible says, “Those who received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). Throughout the book of Acts, as the Word was preached, God was pleased to convert souls (Acts 2:27; 4:4; 5:42-6:1; 6:7; 11:21-22; 12:24; 13:46-49; 14:21; 16:14; 17:10-12; 18:8; 19:20).

Regarding the power of the Word to convert, Donald Grey Barnhouse assessed, “The interrelationship of faith and the hearing of the Word of God is at the heart of the whole process of transforming an individual from a child of wrath into a child of God. It is by the transforming power of the Word, faith laying hold on the Word, that a man ceases to be a child of disobedience and becomes a child of obedient faith.”15 If more preachers would preach Scripture-saturated messages, the spurious conversions so prevalent in churches today would be drastically reduced. If Scripture is so sufficient to convert the lost, why preach anything else?

Power to Conform

Scripture’s sufficiency is also seen in its power to conform, or sanctify, a believer into the image of Christ. It is through the living Word of God that we grow into Christlikeness. In His high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth, Your Word is truth” (John. 17:17). “Sanctify” means to separate, to make holy, to set apart from the power of sin and the lure of the world unto God. As Christ interceded for His disciples, He knew that spiritual growth into godliness is achieved only by the Word.

Underscoring the central place of God’s Word in sanctification, Leon Morris writes poignantly, “Sanctification is not effected apart from the divine revelation.”16 Only a holy instrument, the Bible, can produce a holy life. A.T. Pierson notes, “While other books inform, and some reform, this one book transforms.”17 All this is to say, the Word of God is the means of life-changing transformation into the image of Christ from the inside out.
Peter emphasized this Word-centered pattern for sanctification by making it analogous to a baby craving the necessary nourishment of milk. The apostle admonished all believers, “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Just as milk is critical to the growth of every baby, so God’s Word is crucial to the growth of every Christian. When rightly served, the Scripture feeds and nourishes the soul, nurturing spiritual growth into Christian maturity. Furthermore, every believer needs more than merely the milk of the Word, picturing its most elementary truths, but they must learn to digest “solid food” (1 Corinthians 3:2; Hebrews 5:12,14), or the deeper truths of the Word.

To preach anything other than the Word is to serve spiritual junk food to people, stunting their growth and confining them in a state of malnutrition. Scripture is the only nourishment which can cause believers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Therefore, it is incumbent upon pastors to be always serving a rich diet of the Word from the pulpit. In a day when so many believers are biblically underfed and spiritually dwarfed, every preacher must renew his commitment to serve a full, balanced meal in the Scripture. Preaching the full counsel of God leads to the full development of believers (Acts 20:27). If true nourishment for the soul comes from God’s Word, the one ingredient needed in order to grow spiritually, why preach anything else?

Power to Counsel

Fifth, the sufficiency of Scripture is witnessed by its power to counsel believers. The Bible touches every area of the Christian life, giving sound instruction for successful living. The Word of God is able to make every believer wise in the various realms of his or her existence by unfolding the divinely ordained direction to be taken.

Speaking to this very issue, Psalm 119 issues strong statements concerning the ability of Scripture to lead God’s people into His “good and acceptable and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). The psalmist declares, “Thy testimonies also are my delight, they are my counselors” (v. 24).

A counselor is one who provides wise direction regarding what action an individual should pursue. This is precisely what the Bible is, a wise counselor able to guide believers onto God’s path for their lives. In fact, so perfect is Scripture to direct one’s life that it makes one wiser than his enemies (v. 98), it gives more insight than all one’s teachers (v. 99), it gives more understanding than the aged possess (v. 100). For the believer who seeks God’s direction, His Word is the primary means of finding His will.

Psalm 119 continues, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (v. 105). This imagery pictures Scripture as a shining lamp on a dark night, a source of brightest light providing the illumination necessary to clearly see the way to go. Along this same idea, the psalmist reiterates, “The unfolding of Thy words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple” (v. 130). Accordingly, John Calvin writes, “Unless God’s Word illumines the way, the whole life of men is wrapped in darkness and mist, so that they cannot but miserably stray. The Lord does not shine upon us, except when we take His Word as our light.”18 In other words, believers are dependent upon the Scripture to enlighten their path if they are to pursue God’s will and experience His guidance. Why preach anything else?

In another psalm, David writes, “The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” (Psalm 19:7b). This means that the Bible is sufficient to turn the nauve person into one who is proficiently skilled in living because he possesses a proper understanding of God and life. David adds, “The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (v. 19:8b).

Scripture is more than adequate to shine supernatural light onto man’s darkened way, giving divine perspective, heavenly insight, and clear direction. This being true, when the man of God opens the Scripture to preach its truths and is faithful to expound its text, he can be assured he has just given divine counsel to each individual in his congregation. Certainly, there are occasions that may call for a personal counseling session, yet the most powerful counseling occurs in the authoritative public proclamation of the Word. Given the supreme wisdom recorded in the pages of Scripture, why preach anything else?

Power to Conquer

Sixth, the sufficiency of Scripture is seen in its ability to conquer the forces of the kingdom of darkness. The Word is the invincible instrument every preacher must use to bring victory over the devil. The expositor must be able to take up “the sword of the Spirit, the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17) and wield it effectively in his ministry. This “sword” (machaira) was the small, short dagger used in hand-to-hand combat to inflict a precise blow at the enemy’s most vulnerable spot.

In keeping with this image, the “word” (rhema) refers to a specific statement in the Scripture which is strategically used to counteract a direct attack from Satan. Combining these two truths, we may surmise that when the Word of God is proclaimed, it becomes the most powerful weapon in the minister’s hand, an irrepressible instrument that is able to cut a swath through Satan’s kingdom and triumphant to many a life.

Regarding this conquering power, the apostle Paul writes, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). Only the supernatural truth of God’s Word can pull down and destroy Satan’s strongholds. Worldly weapons cannot defeat a spiritual foe. These fortresses are the devil’s lies, namely worldly philosophies, secular ideologies, and false teachings which are deeply entrenched in the minds of men and destroy their souls. Therefore, like a master swordsman the preacher must be continually unsheathing the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, and using it to overpower these satanic falsehoods if souls are to be rescued from eternal ruin.

George Whitefield, the noted evangelist of the Great Awakening, understood the power of the Word to conquer. He viewed the entirety of his preaching ministry as an assault on Satan and his minions.19 A particularly successful season of preaching meant, according to Whitefield, “many inroads have been made into Satan’s kingdom. Many sinners convicted and many saints much comforted and established in their holy faith.”20 In this demon-infested world system held captive by Satan (1 John. 5:19), where souls are held captive by the devil to do his will (2 Tim. 2:25), preachers must proclaim the Word, wielding its authority, if captives are to be released (Luke 4:18; cf. Isa. 61:1). With so many souls held captive by Satan and the Word alone able to conquer, why preach anything else?

The Word Did It All!

For every preacher, the sufficiency of Scripture must be his confidence as he enters the pulpit to preach the Word. With so many affirming a renewed belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, an equal confidence also must be placed in its potency and power. This was precisely what occurred in the days of the Reformation as sola Scriptura became the battle cry of the Reformers. Armed solely with the Word, Martin Luther explained the phenomenon of the Reformation in his day this way:

“I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And when, while I slept, the Word so greatly weak ened the papacy that never a Prince or Emperor inflicted such damage upon it. I did nothing The Word did it all.”21

Such an unwavering commitment to sola Scriptura, the supernatural ability of the Word to execute God’s purposes, must be the unshakeable confidence of every preacher in this generation. Now more than ever, we must preach the full counsel of the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. May God raise up expositors in our day who will teach and preach the Word with growing confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture to perform all that God intends. May we come to behold in this hour what Luther witnessed so long ago: The Word did it all.

Soli Deo Gloria.

1 James Montgomery Boice, Gospel of Grace? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), p. 66.
2 Ibid., p. 66.
3 John MacArthur, How to Get the Most From God’s Word (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishers, 1997), p. 86.
4 John MacPherson, Westminster Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958), p. 6.
5 Martin Luther quoted in John Blanchard, comp., More Gathered Gold (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1984), p. 26.
6 John MacArthur, How to Get the Most From God’s Word, p. 115.
7 Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1977), p. 164.
8 C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications: 1974), p. 115.
9McArthur, p. 116.
10 R. Kent Hughes, Preaching The Word, Hebrews Volume One, An Anchor for the Soul (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1993), p. 121.
11 Barclay M. Newman, A Translator’s Handbook on The Acts of The Apostles (Postfach, Germany: United Bible Societies, 1972), p., 59.
12 John Stott, The Spirit, The Church, and the World: The Message of Acts (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1990), p. 78.
13 Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: An Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1995), p. 104.
14 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 104.
15 Donald Grey Barnhouse, God’s Covenants God’s Discipline God’s Glory volume 4 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), p. 94.
16 Leon Morris, New International Commentary on the New Testament: John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 647.
17 A. T. Pierson, quoted in John Blanchard, comp., Gathered Gold (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1984), p. 18.
18 John Calvin, quoted in John Blanchard, comp., Gathered Gold (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1984), p. 17.
19 Stephen Mansfield, Forgotten Founding Father, The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House: 2001), 166.
20 George Whitefield, George Whitefield’s Journals (Edinburgh, London: Banner of Truth Trust: 1998), 275.
21 John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds, The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1982), p. 25.