Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
In the 1500s, the church experienced the upheaval we now call The Reformation. The Reformation began with the growing desire to show the Roman Catholic Church its errors and make it healthier. This year, Protestants around the world commemorated the 500th anniversary of The Reformation, which is marked by the date October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther famously nailed his points of debate to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.
This morning we are going to begin a sermon series that will carry us through the advent season. For the next five weeks we are looking at each of the “five solas.” The five solas are a cluster of Latin phrases that describe the central points of contention during The Reformation (sola is Latin for “alone”). The solas highlight how God rescues his people from their sin: we are saved on the authority of Scripture alone, by Christ alone, through Grace alone, on the basis of Faith alone, and all to the Glory of God alone. Scripture alone. Christ alone. Grace alone. Faith alone. The Glory of God alone.
Our aim in this sermon series is not give history lessons, though. Each week, we are going to teach from a Bible passage that speaks with clarity to one of these phrases, phrases we still want to define us today.
This morning, to talk about the importance of treasuring the Word of God as our highest authority, there are many places in the Bible we could go to hear what the Bible has to say about itself. But I’ve chosen a handful of verses from Deuteronomy 32. In the book of Deuteronomy, God’s people were about to transition to a new home, and so are we. And God’s charge to them is the same as it is to us.
If you have a Bible, please turn with me to Deuteronomy 32:44–47. Follow along with me as I read. After I’ve read the passage, we’ll pray and study this together.
44 Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua the son of Nun. 45 And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. 47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”
This is God’s word. Thanks be to God. Please pray with me as we begin to study this together? “Heavenly Father . . .”
People say our culture is becoming more and more biblically illiterate, that is, we are less and less familiar with what God’s Word actually says.
But decreasing familiarity with the Bible isn’t simply something out there in culture; it’s in seminary classrooms too. When I was in seminary, the president of our seminary was Dr. Bryan Chapel, a man for whom I have great respect. And I heard him share on a number of occasions about this change in biblical literacy among seminary students. He said that from the time he had attended our seminary as a student, to the time that he became president of the seminary, incoming students became less and less familiar with the Bible. It’s common for seminaries to have a pre-enrollment Bible exam, and Dr. Chapel said the number of students who passed the preliminary Bible content exam had been 2/3, and those who did not pass had been only 1/3. Most incoming students passed the exam. However, in the time he went from student to president, it flipped; the number who passed the preliminary Bible content exam was 1/3, while those that did not pass was 2/3. Most incoming students didn’t pass the exam.
Dr. Chapel was always quick to point out that he was with those who did not pass, but it does illustrate the point that things are changing. They always have been, which is why one of the battle cries of The Reformation was Scripture Alone. The people of God—not only the professionals but every Christian—must be anchored to the Word of God, lest we drift out to sea.
Famously, in 1521 when Luther was being interrogated for his beliefs and his reforms and his hope in the gospel, he was told to recant or face severe consequences. At first he asked for time to consider the matter. He was given one night. The next day he stood before the authorities, saying,
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.1
But this belief about the authority of Scripture isn’t simply a belief of The Reformation, a theological doctrine made up by men and women, something some monk once believed once upon a time. We see the emphasis on Scripture alone in the very pages of Scripture itself. We see it in the words of Moses in Deuteronomy read a moment ago.
Coming back to that passage, as I move through it, I want to ask and answer three questions: 1. Who are these people?, 2. What are they told?, and 3. What does it mean for us?
1. Who are these people?
When we pick up the book of Deuteronomy we are dealing with the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, the people he intended to bless the world through. And in Deuteronomy we are looking at Israel at a very specific point in time, a very fragile point.
Great and wonderful and terrifying things were being weighed in the balance. There was a transition of leadership coming very soon and was, in fact, already underway. There was new land to be occupied, battles to be fought, new aspects of God’s glory to be experienced. And perhaps in the eyes of many, the situation was tenuous. They were fragile. Have you ever felt fragile?
Moses, the author of Deuteronomy, is about to die, and Deuteronomy is his final pastoral charge to the people he has been pastoring for forty years. In perhaps just a few short days Moses will climb Mount Nebo to its highest peak. Mount Nebo is in Moab on the north side of the Dead Sea, which is east of the Promised Land, east of the Jordan River.
But when we pick up the book of Deuteronomy here, it’s not as though we are at Moses’s bedside, as it were, while he undergoes hospice care. No, his strength, his resolve, his health are not diminished (see 34:7). Instead, Moses is more a man on death row than hospice. Some years before he had disobeyed God, and as a consequence, he would he would not enter the Promised Land. (It’s interesting, as well, that he’s pointing away from himself to God’s Word, not to Joshua, which was part of the problem in that incident.)
And why is this “death-row” aspect significant? Because Moses has had time to think. Deuteronomy is his last sermon to God’s people. It would as if Jason and I were your pastors your whole life, and when we leave this building next week, we won’t be going with you. Now, Jason and I—as far as we know—are going with you. But if we weren’t, and if we had years to think about what we wanted to say to you in our final sermon to you, I know I might say something like what Moses says. I’ll tell you why at the end of the sermon.
Moses’ words in Deuteronomy were premeditated and calculated. He is verbose, but not meandering. His words are many, but not unnecessarily so. They are on point, on target. And here in Chapter 32, Moses condenses the message of the book into a song. And then he condenses the song into a single message, a final summary charged to God’s people. What is that charge? “People of God, you must be people of God’s Word, for God’s Word are not idle words to you, but they are your very life.”
In summary, who are these people? They are God’s people on the plains of Moab. They are poised for newness, for blessing, for trials, for difficulties, for challenges and for adventure—some of which they are aware and others of which they are not.
If that’s who these people are, let’s take up our second question: What are they told? God’s people are told a message about the importance of God’s Word and the abundance of the life devoted to God’s word.
2. What are they told?
Let me re-read vv. 46–47,
46 [Moses] said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. 47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”
I learned some time ago that you can tell a great deal about what an author is advocating by focusing on the statements that the author makes along the lines of “I’m not saying this, but rather I’m saying this.” We find Moses making just such a claim. “I’m not saying this, but rather I’m saying this.” “For it is no empty word for you, but your very life.”
The English Standard Version of the Bible translates the phrase “empty word.” I also like the way it is translated in the New International Version, which has “these are not idle words.” To be clear, that’s not idol (i-d-o-l) as in idolatry, but idle (i-d-l-e), like a car does in a driveway or at a stoplight: Idle. It doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. Moses is saying that that’s not what God’s Word is. God’s Word is not idle. God’s Word, to use the language of Hebrews, is living and active. The Word of God goes places and does things. It is not empty, or hollow, or worthless. It’s not idle; it is your life.
Think about that word life for a moment. Most of the decisions we make on a day to day basis are not monumental. Perhaps the little decisions we make do add up to something larger, but what food we eat for dinner, or what we wear, or the car we drive, or even the house we buy—which is a big decision—I don’t know that we would say these decisions are, generally speaking, consequences of life and death.
But some decisions are of this magnitude, are they not? Some choices have weight and consequence. They are not trivial or petty decisions.
One of the shows that our family has enjoyed over the years is the Biggest Loser, where the winner is the person who loses the most weight over, what I think, is about six months. At the beginning of every season, the contestants are given a health exam. Invariably, the doctor impresses upon the contestants that for them losing weight is not about looking better in a swimsuit next summer. Losing weight is about life and death.
That is what Moses is saying to God’s people. Your allegiance, or lack thereof, to God’s Word, is not trivial. It is your life. God wants you to have steadfast, radical fidelity to his Word. No compromises, no half ways.
This much is clear, but what is interesting is that Moses equates this submission to the authority of the Word of God with “life,” not just life as an opposite of death, but abundant life, joyful life, life that is really life. Moses says, on the whole, if you obey God’s word, “by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (v. 47). The point being that for Moses, the life that treasures Scripture as its highest authority, is the good life. I wonder if you and I make the same connection.
Culturally we talk about the “good life,” but what do we mean by it? If I asked you when you came in, What is the good life?, what would you say? How does the good life feel? What does the good life own? What does the good life drive? Where does the good life vacation? Where does the good life live?
Years ago, I was asked to preach at a church as a guest. At the time they were finishing a series on Psalm 119, which is the longest chapter in the Bible: 176 verses. It’s a Hebrew acrostic poem with 8 verses for each letter of the 22 in the Hebrew alphabet. The main design of the poem is to celebrate God’s Word.
And as I began to study the Psalm, I was confused by what I found. I found an author radically committed to two things I had never connected before. The author is radically committed to God’s Word and radically committed to happiness and joy. Listen for a few examples:
Psalm 119:70, I delight in your law.
Psalm 119:97, Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.
Psalm 119:103, How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Psalm 119:129, Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.
Psalm 119:143, your commandments are my delight.
Psalm 119:162, I rejoice at your word
Do you see it? Commitment to the Word and commitment to joy.
As I pressed further, I discovered something amazing: it is not that the author was radically committed to two things, God’s Word and joy. Rather, he was committed to one thing because these things, which I had thought were two things, are really one thing. The good life is a life of steadfast, radical commitment to the God’s Word.
If we don’t understand this, we won’t understand Moses or the Psalms or, for that matter, we won’t understand Christian obedience. Christian obedience is not doing something devoutly because God says to do it even though we know full well that it is not the best thing in the world.
How might your life change if you really believed that a life devoted to Scripture and the “good life” were the same thing? According to the Bible, the good life is not an easy life, but it is good.
So, we’ve been asking who these people were and what they were told. They are God’s people on the plains of Moab. They are poised for newness, for blessing, for trials, for difficulties, for challenges and for adventure—some of which they are aware and others of which they are not. And they are to cling to God’s Word because it is for them their very life.
3. What does that mean for us?
It means many things for us. I’d like to mention a few of them.
To prioritize Scripture in your life will mean you commit to a regular reading of the Bible. You are busy, I know. But you do have time for this. You probably don’t have time for this by compressing your schedule. But you do have time for it by subtracting other things, say, social media and television.
One of the reasons medieval Catholicism went so wrong in so many ways was not simply because church leadership went so wrong—though they did. The problem was also that the average Christian didn’t have a working understanding of the Bible, which is why one of the great things Luther did was translate the Bible into German so it could be read by the average Christian.
About 15–20 minutes a day will get you through the Bible in a year. And if you’ve never done this, it’s not too late to begin. At my former church, there was a man who was 89 years old. When I would go over to his house, he’d quiz me about various English Bible translations. He had five or six on end table, and I did not get the impression that they were collecting dust. He was using them. In fact, on one visit, he was wading through the book of Leviticus on his journey through the Bible. We chatted about that. I also think of my grandmother, who is a very sweet and godly woman. A few years ago, we visited my grandma at Christmas, and she confessed that she had “skipped” ahead in her Bible reading. For the first time in her life, which was in her 70s, she read through the Bible cover-to-cover in a year, and she had read ahead so that she could finish before we got there to visit.
What else does this mean for us? There is also a word in this passage about sharing the Bible with our children, whether that’s your own children or children in our church community. At a men’s breakfast last month, the topic of household worship came up. And we went around and shared different things we all were doing or had done in the past. One of the takeaways was that there is no one way or one book to do this, but that we do it. We have to find a way to pass on the faith to the coming generation. Part of that will happen at church on Sundays—and I love what we do here; I love what my children learn each week from their teachers—but part of that will mean instruction at home too. At my home we are reading a paragraph of Luke’s gospel at the breakfast table a few times a week.
As we are talking about what Scripture alone means for us as a church, perhaps it would be helpful to also mention something Scripture alone does not mean. Sometimes the phrase is misunderstood to suggest that our only authority is the Bible. That’s not true. Rightly understood it means that there are many authorities but the highest authority, the authority above all the other authorities, is the Bible. This means Christians are not against creeds. We are not against confessions. We are not against statements of faith. We are not against theology books. We are not against pastors and preachers and small group leaders. But all of these authorities ought to be in submission to the authority of the Bible.
I don’t know whether you knew this or not, but we are part of the evangelical free church of America. In the section of our own statement of faith on the Bible, we say this:
We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises. (The Evangelical Free Church of America, Statement of Faith)
This is a statement of what our church believes about the Bible, but you’ll see that the statement is not self-referential. It, like all good creeds and confessions and theology books, points away from itself to the Bible. Around here, we do have some of our favorite Bible teachers. But it’s important that we are continually evaluating that what they say comes from the Bible, not merely because so-and-so said it. Just last week, a person emailed me to mention how she felt lead to “fast” from reading and listening to a particular Bible teacher for a whole year so that she could focus on what the Bible has to say.
As we close, let me mention something critical. This isn’t about guilt. I know there are some of you here who have not opened a Bible on your own in months and for others, it might be years. Perhaps you’re just getting back into Christianity after many years away. I don’t share all this so that you might feel guilty. Guilt can make you read your Bible for like two weeks—tops.
If Scripture alone was the only cry of The Reformation, we would be in trouble. But thankfully it is not. In the coming weeks, we’ll be talking about Christ alone and Grace alone and Faith alone. Oh, church, what ignited the reformers about the Bible and what ignites me about the Bible, is that in it we have the good news story of the gospel. We have the story of a God who so loved the world, gave his only son so that we might have life. Christians are committed to the Bible because Jesus said “[the Scriptures] bear witness about me” (John 5:39). This is why, like Moses, if I had one sermon left to give, I’d point you to the Bible, because when you get the Bible, you get it all.
We may not be on the plans of Moab, but we are about to begin a transition. Just like Israel, we are poised for newness, for blessing, for trials, for difficulties, for challenges and for adventure—some of which we are aware and others of which we are not. And though it all, we must cling to God’s Word because it is our very life.
Pray with me as the music team comes back up. Let’s pray . . .