Article by: Joe Carter
The Story: A new survey finds that on two key doctrines, the majority of U.S. Protestants hold views that are more in line with the Roman Catholic Church than with the historical position of the Reformation.
The Background: According to new survey by the Pew Research Center, not even half of U.S. Protestants (46 percent) agree that faith alone is needed to get into heaven—a historically Protestant belief known as sola fide—but more than half (52 percent) say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven—a historically Catholic belief.
There is also a significant split on the issue of sola scriptura—the traditional Protestant belief that the Bible is the sole source of religious authority for Christians. Only 46 percent of American Protestants say the Bible is the sole source of religious authority for Christians while 52 percent say that in addition to the Bible, Christians need guidance from church teachings and traditions.
Ironically, about a fifth of American Catholics hold beliefs that are more in line with Protestantism than most Protestants: 17 percent agree with the sola fide position and 21 percent agree with sola scriptura.
The survey finds that belief in sola fide and sola scriptura is strongest among white evangelical Protestants, much more so than white mainline Protestants or black Protestants. Fully two-thirds of white evangelicals agree that faith alone is the key to getting into heaven, and nearly six-in-ten say the Bible is the only source to which Christians should look for religious guidance. Even among white evangelicals, though, only 44 percent express both convictions—37 percent believe one but not the other, while 19 percent do not embrace either sola fide or sola scriptura.
(There is other data presented in this intriguing survey that is worthy of note. My TGC colleague Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra has a more in-depth examination of the survey’s findings in her article for Christianity Today.)
Why It Matters: In his letter to the Galatians the Apostle Paul says, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:15-16).
The belief we are justified (accounted as right before God) by faith and nothing else is the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation. This doctrine, which we refer to as sola fide (by faith alone), is the key point of separation between Roman Catholic and Protestant theology. I agree with R.C. Sproul, who says:
The issue that divided the Roman Catholics from the Protestant Reformers was not a secondary or tertiary doctrine. The dispute focused on the essence of the gospel. Some have argued that sola fide (faith alone) is central to the Christian faith but not essential. I contend, however, that it is essential to the gospel in that, without sola fide, we do not have the gospel. And without the gospel, we have no salvation.
Because it is such an essential doctrine, to deny the truth of sola fide is to reject a cornerstone of the gospel and the only foundation for calling oneself a “Protestant.”
While white evangelicals may be able boast they are more likely than other self-professed Protestants to hold the orthodox view of justification, only 67 percent say that faith in God alone is needed to get into heaven. And when all evangelicals are included the number drops to 57 percent, while 43 percent say that both faith and good deeds are necessary to get into heaven.
If this is an accurate finding, then it is a scandal in our community. Such basic ignorance of theologically essential doctrine reflects poorly on the gospel education of American evangelicals.
As with any survey or poll, though, I recommend carefully examining the questions to see if it accurately reflects the findings. For this reason I’m less concerned about what appears to be rejection or confusion about evangelical views of Sola scriptura, the doctrine that Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian.
Only 58 percent of evangelicals agree the Bible provides all the religious guidance Christians need. There are a number of ways this question could be interpreted (or misinterpreted). For example, some respondents may think it implies a relativism of interpretation and is asking whether we need “religious guidance” in understanding the Bible’s meaning. Such potential confusions about what the question is asking lead me to be less concerned about this particular finding. (Though it too could be a sign of a problem.)
In contrast, the sola fide question is more difficult to dismiss. The specific question Pew asked was, “Which statement comes closer to your view, even if neither is exactly right?” The choices of answers were: “Both good deeds and faith in God are necessary to get into heaven” and “Faith in God is the only thing that gets people into heaven.”
Even if evangelicals cannot explain such terms as “justification” they should know that faith in Christ alone is what is “necessary to get into heaven.” The fact that so many do not understand such a basic point of the gospel is a disturbing trend. However, it’s a fixable problem.
As Martin Luther said, “Because if this article [of justification] stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.” Based on this survey it’s clear that our church is collapsing. But we can shore up the foundation by being clear about the doctrine of justification and having church leaders preach the pure gospel to the remaining pseudo-Protestants in our pews.
Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He serves as an elder at Grace Hill Church in Herndon, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter.