Are Protestants Closer to Catholics than Martin Luther? A Response to the Recent Pew Study (Part 2)

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

September 11, 2017

Last week, I posted the first of a two-part response to a recent Pew study which claimed that modern Protestants sound more like Catholics when it comes to issues like sola scriptura and sola fide.

While modern Protestants certainly have some significant theological weak spots, I pushed back against the results of this study on the grounds that the questions being asked were fundamentally misleading.  Indeed, the theological descriptions of the Protestant (and Catholic!) positions were flat out wrong.

Having already dealt with the sola scriptura issue in the prior post, we now turn to the issue of sola fide.  Here is the summary of the Pew survey about the way Protestants view that issue:

For example, nearly half of U.S. Protestants today (46%) say faith alone is needed to attain salvation (a belief held by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, known in Latin as sola fide). But about half (52%) say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven, a historically Catholic belief.

Again, this statistic, if true, would be quite discouraging.  But, just like the issue of sola scriptura, it all depends on how the question is worded.  Here are the two options given by the Pew survey:

1. Faith in God alone is needed to get into heaven (sola fide).

2. Both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven.

While the wording here is not as problematic as the wording of the sola scriptura portion, it is still quite confusing.

After all, the average Protestant might read #1 above and naturally think of all those people who profess faith in Jesus and yet don’t live a life of holiness or obedience.  Such a person might naturally ask (along with James): “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (Jas 2:14).

Moreover, the average Protestant might read #1 above and think about a verse like Heb 12:14: “Without holiness no one will see the Lord.”  How does a verse like that square with option #1 in the survey? Doesn’t a person have to have some good deeds to go to heaven?

These sorts of questions demonstrate that the choice between #1 and #2 in the survey is far too simplistic.  In light of the verses just mentioned, a Protestant might be justified in picking #2!  Thus, more nuance is needed.

On a fundamental level, the survey options do not allow for a very important distinction the Reformers made, namely the distinction between the instrument of justification (faith) and the results of justification (good works).

Reformed folks would certainly affirm that faith alone is the instrument by which God justifies a sinner.  But, this does not mean that faith is the only characteristic present in the life of a true believer.  Good works inevitably follow.

The Westminster Confession is very plain on this point: “Faith is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all the other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (11.2).

Or, as Calvin said, “Faith alone justifies. But the faith that justifies is not alone.”

Due to this lack of nuance, the survey creates a false distinction between Protestants and Catholics.  It makes it seem that good works only have a place in the Catholic system and not the Protestant one.

To put it another way, both Protestants and Catholics believe that people who go to heaven have faith and good works.  That is not what is in question. What is in question is the precise function of faith and works in a person’s justification.

For the survey to have been accurate, it would need to have been worded as follows:

1. We are not saved by our good works, as if we could earn our way to heaven.  Rather we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone.  Christ’s work is sufficient to make us acceptable to God. And all who truly trust in Christ, and are filled with the Spirit, will produce good works.

2. We are not saved by faith alone in Christ alone.  A person must believe in Jesus and must also perform good works in order to merit God’s acceptance. Christ’s work alone is not sufficient to make us acceptable to God, we must add our own good deeds.

If worded in this manner, there is little doubt that the results of the survey would be substantially different.

So, in the end, what do we make of the Pew survey?  It seems that is not necessarily modern Protestants who are theologically confused about sola scriptura and sola fide, but rather it is the Pew foundation itself that is theologically confused.

I might suggest (with tongue firmly in cheek) that they need to do a new study entitled, “Are Pew Pollsters Closer to Catholics than Martin Luther?”



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