American Protestants Either Don’t Believe-Don’t Understand the Beliefs that Guided the Reformation

As we draw near to the 500th anniversary of the dawn of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517

a new Pew Research survey shows that American Protestants are either moving away from or misunderstanding some of the basic beliefs that guided the Reformation.

[Martin Luther’s] legacy, 500 years later, is 560 million Protestants across the globe, making up more than a third of the world’s Christians.

But many of them don’t actually agree with him.

Today, half of American Protestants say that both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven (52%); the same number believe that in addition to the Bible, Christians need guidance from church teachings and traditions, according to two studies released today by the Pew Research Center.

To break the results down a little further, only 46% of American Protestants believe that only faith in Jesus is required for salvation (sola fide), while 52% believe that it takes a combination of faith and works to get into heaven. Similarly, 46% believe that the Bible provides all instruction and wisdom for Christians (sola scriptura), while 52% again think that a combination of Biblical study, church teaching, and religious traditions is essential for spiritual guidance.

Tying both beliefs together, 30% of American protestants believe in both sola scriptura and sola fide, while 35% ascribe to one doctrine but not the other, and 36% hold to neither concept.

What’s behind the shift in these beliefs? I lay the blame at the feet of a combination of factors: spiritual laziness, general human nature, and (I suspect) a lack of understanding of how to explain the answer to some of the questions.

Two millennia after Jesus walked the earth, even some of the most ardent Christian believers have a hard time reconciling the whole idea of not having to work for salvation. God’s grace is such an earth-shattering concept that people still struggle with it. Add to that a modern culture that emphasizes universalism, and it’s easy to see how people can think that being “good” actually plays a role in salvation.

When it comes to the confusion over sola scriptura, I can’t help but wonder if many of the participants in the survey believe that church preaching and teaching enhances – but takes a back seat to – scriptural understanding but didn’t know how to explain their answer. That’s the only way I can wrap my head around the idea that half of American Protestants can put man’s teaching and tradition on the same level as the inspired Word of God.

Either way, there’s a lot of work to be done – and I’m talking about spiritual disciple, not legalism. When we live in a world full of nominal Christians who attend church about once a month (if at all) and spend virtually no time studying and learning God’s Word, we’re bound to see survey results like this one.

American Christians need to get back to digging in to God’s Word, spending time with Him in prayer, and finding community in a local Bible-believing church. Martin Luther didn’t devote his life to exposing the problems of and reforming the 16th century church for us to equate works with grace or elevate teaching and tradition to equality with scripture. Imagine the changes we could see in our communities if more believers would get serious about spiritual discipline again!

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