Has the Reformation Failed?

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.”

Altogether, only three in ten U.S. Protestants (30 percent) believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura. White evangelical Protestants are closest to the teaching of the Reformation, but only 44 percent of them affirm both that salvation comes through faith alone and that the Bible is the sole authority to which Christians should look for religious guidance. On the other side, two-thirds of Catholics (68 percent) reject both doctrines.

Among white evangelicals in the U.S., belief in sola fide and sola scriptura is more likely among those who attend church frequently and among the more highly educated.

Most Protestants reject the teaching of Purgatory, however. Roman Catholicism teaches that after death, those who are saved will go through a period of cleansing before they can go to heaven. This teaching enabled John Tetzel to sell indulgences, asking Catholics to pay money so that they can cut down their time in Purgatory — or save their relatives from it.

According to the Pew study, a vast majority of Catholics (70 percent) said they believe in Purgatory. Almost two-thirds of Protestants (65 percent) reject the teaching, however. Most white evangelical Protestants (72 percent) and white mainline Protestants (66 percent) reject Purgatory.

Most Americans knew that the Protestant Reformation is the period when Protestants broke away from Catholicism, and that Martin Luther led the movement. But only 23 percent of Americans correctly identified Protestants as the group that teaches sola fide, salvation through faith alone. Almost half of U.S. adults (45 percent) said both Protestants and Catholics believe sola fide, and 11 percent said only Catholics hold this belief. Almost one in five (19 percent) said neither Protestants nor Catholics believe it.

Even among white evangelical Protestants, the group most likely to hold to Reformation teachings, only 42 percent identified Protestants as the group believing in sola fide. A plurality of U.S. Protestants (44 percent) said that both Catholics and Protestants believe the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, while only 27 percent said it is a uniquely Protestant doctrine.

Perhaps the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification throws a wrench in this understanding. In that document, Catholics agreed with Lutherans that “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” Even so, the major teachings of Catholicism stand — that God’s grace redeems people through the Catholic sacraments.

Martin Luther and John Calvin firmly rejected the idea that Christians could lose their salvation through sin, something the Roman Catholic Church still teaches. According to Catholic teaching, if a Christian commits a “mortal sin,” the Holy Spirit leaves him, and he can only be saved if he repents before a Roman Catholic priest and receives absolution.

Despite such clear differences, most Americans (61 percent), along with most Protestants (57 percent) and Catholics (65 percent) said that Catholics and Protestants are more similar than different, religiously. Only 41 percent of Protestants and 31 percent of Catholics said the two religions are more different than similar.

While this result might have angered a man like Martin Luther, who dedicated his life to returning Christians to the Bible and eventually attacked the Roman Catholic Church as the “antichrist,” it is true in many ways.

Both Catholics and Protestants hold to the Nicene Creed, that there is one God the Father who created everything, one Lord Jesus Christ who died and rose again, and one Holy Spirit who unites believers with God. They both agree in the truth of scripture, even if Catholics say Christians cannot understand them without the church’s tradition.

C. S. Lewis was correct to identify a Mere Christianity that unites all Christians, regardless of denominational differences. But that does not make the differences between Protestants and Catholics unimportant — and Americans kneed to know those differences, especially if they are Protestant themselves.

The Reformation achieved a great deal. Leaders like John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and others got the Bible translated into vernacular languages in Europe, planting the seeds for personal faith — and later political movements based on individualism and the spread of learning. The Reformation was central to America’s founding, and it helped spread literacy far and wide.

But America’s Protestant churches need a new kind of Reformation — a return to the teachings of Luther and Calvin, but more than that a return to the Bible itself. Liberal churches have arguably sacrificed the gospel for social reform, while some conservative churches lost sight of Christ in the search for personal morality. A “prosperity gospel” movement preaches health and wealth, in contrast to Jesus’ teachings.

The Reformation did not fail, but American Protestants need a new Reformation, not to further divide Christianity, but to return to scripture instead of human tradition.