Has the Reformation Failed?

Martin Luther nails 95 Theses to church door

On the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, it seems appropriate to examine whether or not Protestants are following his vision of a return to scripture over human tradition. According to recent Pew Research Center surveys, the outlook is none too rosy.

Most Americans say they know what it means to be Protestant, but not even most Protestants can identify the central doctrine of the Reformation. Indeed, most American Catholics and Protestants said their religions are "more similar than different."

Most Christians — and most Protestants — told the Pew Research Center that both faith in God and good needs are necessary to get into heaven. This directly contradicts a central Reformation teaching: Sola Fide, that sinners are saved by faith alone.

As Ephesians 2:8-10 states, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus  for good works, which he has before ordained for us to walk in."

More than eight in ten Roman Catholics (81 percent) said faith and works are both necessary for salvation, which should not be surprising, as that is the Catholic position. But most Protestants (52 percent) also agreed. White mainline Protestants (60 percent), black Protestants (66 percent), and other minority Protestants (66 percent) said so.

Even a third of white evangelical Protestants (33 percent) rejected sola fide, although 67 percent of them did accept it.

Another Pew study found that 47 percent of European Protestants said that both good deeds and faith in God are necessary for salvation, while only 29 percent held to sola fide. Even in Germany, the heart of the Reformation, 61 percent of Protestants said both good deeds and faith in God were necessary for salvation.

Perhaps more concerning, most Protestants (52 percent) rejected the doctrine of sola scriptura, that the "Bible provides all the religious guidance Christians need." Instead, they said that "In addition to Bible, Christians need guidance from church teachings, traditions."

Most Catholics (75 percent), black Protestants (67 percent), and white mainline Protestants (61 percent) said church teachings and traditions are necessary for guidance, in addition to the Bible. Even 47 percent of other minority Protestants and 41 percent of white evangelical Protestants also rejected sola scriptura.

At least a majority of white evangelical Protestants (58 percent) and of other minority Protestants (52 percent) held to the classic Reformation teaching. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."