Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms (Woodcut by Hans Sebald Beham) © akg-images

he Protestant Reformation was a time of great discovery, and rediscovery, of essential biblical truths lost or muted for centuries. Intense and passionate people like Martin Luther (1483-1546) rediscovered the biblical gospel, which freed them from the anxiety they had about whether or not they had done enough good works to merit their salvation. The justification of a sinner before the holy God sola fide (“by faith alone”) was the great pastoral insight of the Protestants of the 16th century. As a result, ordinary Christians as well as vocational ministers could know in their heart of hearts they were in a right relationship with God. They could have assurance that in the final judgment they would be received into God’s presence because of Christ’s completed work on their behalf.

Luther spoke movingly of the reality of justification in this way:

Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. As Paul teaches us, Christ and the soul become one flesh by this mystery (Eph. 5.31-32). And if they are one flesh, and if the marriage is for real—indeed, it is the most perfect of all marriages, and human marriages are poor examples of this one true marriage—then it follows that everything that they have is held in common, whether good or evil. So the believer can boast of and glory of whatever Christ possesses, as though it were his or her own; and whatever the believer has, Christ claims as his own. Let us see how this works out, and see how it benefits us. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The human soul is full of sin, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them. Sin, death, and damnation will be Christ’s. And grace, life, and salvation will be the believer’s.1 

All of Christ’s benefits were given to a believer by faith alone.

It is for these reasons that historians often call justification sola fide the “material principle” of the Reformation. It is the central facet of the theology of the Reformation, the teaching which secures how one is made right with God. It secures our salvation. Indeed, without it there is no Christian faith.

But below and behind justification sola fide stands a second facet of the Reformation, sola Scriptur (“Scripture alone”), which gives shape and form to the doctrine of justification. To answer the question, How can I be made right with God?, first I have to determine by what authority I will come to my conclusion. Is it my experience, what seems to work for me? Is it the tradition of the church, or maybe its teachers, who tell me how to be in a saving relationship with the Lord? Or is it the Bible? Luther believed that Scripture—which alone was the breathed-out inerrant Word of God—was the only infallible source to answer weary souls’ questions about their salvation. Sola Scriptura is thus the “formal principle” of the Reformation, guarding the conviction that the Bible alone was able to give shape to our doctrine, especially our theology of the justification of a sinner before the holy Judge. Matthew Barrett defines it as the belief that “only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.”2 

Martin Luther believed this. This German monk is significant for us since “The Reformation is Luther and Luther is the Reformation.”3  In his quest to find solace before the holy God, Luther became an Augustinian monk. Then he proceeded to exhaust himself and his confessor with the number of hours he would spend every day (as a monk) recounting his sins of commission and omission, what he thought about as well as what he feared he might have thought while asleep. It was decided that Luther needed something else to do to take his mind off himself. So, against his will, Luther was made to get a doctoral degree in theology and was appointed lecturer of the Bible, one whose teaching career was spent working through biblical books with his students at the University of Wittenberg.

The church didn’t know what a lion they had let loose when they told Luther to study and teach the Bible. Luther was not easily satisfied with others’ answers to his deepest questions, so he studied, and meditated, and studied more, until finally he was able to see that the Bible taught that one is made righteous not by doing good works or by submitting to the teaching of the Church. No, one is made righteous through faith in Jesus. He studied and taught these books: Psalms (1513-1515); Romans (1515-1516); Galatians (1516-1517); Hebrews (1517-1518); Psalms again (1518-1519). It’s remarkable that Luther (who decided what books of the Bible he would study and teach) chose these particular books to study in depth. You couldn’t arrive at a better I-want-to-become-a-Protestant curriculum of study. And through studying these books, and in his subsequent ministry, Luther became committed to the idea of sola Scriptura.

Sola Scriptura never meant that human reasoning was irrelevant or that the church’s tradition of doctrinal understanding shouldn’t be taken into account. In other words, Luther never promoted nuda Scriptura. Instead, humility should lead us to consider the church’s historical understanding of Scripture as we seek to come to our own conclusions. But sola Scriptura did mean that the Bible was the sole authority in the ultimate determination of our doctrine and our practice. It was the norma normans non normata (the “norm of norms that cannot be normed”), the alone guide to truth. Other avenues of truth were useful, but they all had to sit below the one authoritative source of truth, the Bible. Sola Scriptura is indeed the “formal principle” of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther came to an understanding of sola Scriptura in the midst of his disagreements with the Catholic Church. When he began his debate with Rome over indulgences with his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, what did he begin with? The Bible. The first thesis says,

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

Aided by Desiderius Erasmus’s 1516 publication of the Greek New Testament, Luther understood that the Catholic doctrine of penance was built on an unbiblical foundation because of a mistranslation of Jesus’ words into a Latin rendition reading “do penance” instead of “repent.” No, said Luther, the Bible—not even church tradition spanning over a millennium—must determine our doctrine and practice.

The Roman Church did not take kindly to Luther’s implicit attack on their source of authority. In fact, they said so plainly, pointing out that “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic.”4  Things soon came to a head when Luther debated the Catholic theologian, Cardinal Cajetan, in 1518 at Augsburg. Cajetan stressed that the pope was the final arbiter of the meaning of Scripture, to which Luther responded, “His Holiness [i.e., the pope] abuses Scripture. I deny that he is above Scripture.”5 

The next year (1519) Luther debated Johann Eck, another Catholic theologian, at Leipzig. Eck kept pressing Luther to submit to the tradition of the Church in its conciliar decisions and canon law, much of which he quoted from memory. Luther responded by quoting from memory what he knew best—the Bible! Eck concluded that Luther erred by his unwillingness to submit to the pope’s infallible interpretation of Scripture and said the German monk was no different than the heretic Jan Hus (1369-1415), who had put his own interpretation of the Bible above the papacy’s. After considering this accusation that evening, Luther shocked the assembly the next day by declaring, “Ja, Ich bin ein Hussite” (“Yes, I am a Hussite”), thus showing his allegiance at the point of scriptural authority with a man who’d been burned as a heretic by the church. The church’s response was swift and decisive. In January 1521 Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, condemned as a heretic.

A few months later at the Diet of Worms (April 1521) Luther was charged with being a heretic by the Holy Roman Empire. Asked to recant of the numerous errors in his several books, Luther defiantly took his stand on the authority of the Bible, memorably declaring,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures, or by evident reason (for I put my faith neither in popes nor councils alone, since it is established that they have erred again and again and contradicted one another), I am bound by the scriptural evidence adduced by me, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, I will not recant anything, for it is neither safe nor right to act against one’s conscience. God help me. Amen.6 

The “evident reason” Luther appealed to referred to the conclusions a biblical interpreter would draw from the text of Scripture, not to autonomous human logic.7  Emperor Charles V responded by declaring Luther an outlaw in the empire. Declared an outlaw, Luther was now under the ban of both the church and the empire because of his stand for sola Scriptura.

Luther never recanted because he was deeply convinced that God’s Word alone was true and authoritative. His response to the church and the empire proves this. He preached tirelessly from the Bible. He wrote commentaries on several books of the Bible (his 1535 commentary on Galatians is a wonderful example of the mature Luther’s thought). He translated the New Testament from Greek to German (in 11 weeks) so that laypeople could read, hear, and understand the Bible for themselves. He himself was convinced that God used him simply as an instrument to make the Bible known. All he did was preach the Bible and God performed his work through the Scripture:

I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and my Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.8 

From Luther himself, then, we see that the Protestant Reformation was fueled by both believing and putting into practice the biblical doctrine of sola Scriptura.


Shawn Wright is professor of church history at Southern Seminary.

1 The Freedom of a Christian; cf. McGrath, “Justification,” 363.
2 Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 23.
3 James Atkinson, The Great Light: Luther and Reformation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 11.
4 Sylvester Prierias, Dialogue concerning the Power of the Pope, in Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 36.
5 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 80; in Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 38.
6 Quoted in Rudolph W. Heinze, Reform and Conflict, 96.
7 Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 50.
8 Quoted in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman, 1988), 53.