Tomorrow will mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which flared into life on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses and posted them on the door of the church at Wittenberg. It was the goal of Luther, John Calvin, and the other Reformers to “reform” the Roman Catholic Church by reconnecting Christianity to the original message of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Gospel . . . summarized in five Latin phrases, often called “The Five Solas,” which emerged out of the Reformation:
- Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone
- Sola Fide – Faith alone
- Sola Gratia – Grace alone
- Solus Christus – Christ alone
- Soli Deo Gloria – To the glory of God alone
500 years later, Luther’s legacy under the lordship of Jesus Christ is enormous: there are 560 million Protestants world-wide, which accounts for more than a third of the world’s professing Christians.
I’d like you to consider some findings from a new Pew Research Survey that clearly demonstrate that American Protestants are distancing themselves from the fundamental biblical beliefs that undergirded the Reformation. At the very least, American Protestants completely misunderstand what those beliefs actually are.
Of all the Professing American Protestants . . .
- 52% believe faith and works are needed to get into heaven
- 52% believe church teaching and traditions are also needed
- Only 46% believe faith alone in Jesus is required for salvation (sola fide)
- Only 46% believe that the Scriptures are sufficient for faith and practice
How far we have fallen in 500 years! More than half of all professing Christians in America stated that faith in Jesus Christ alone is not enough for salvation; they believe that faith in Jesus plus their good works (church attendance, acts of mercy and service, giving, etc.) are required for eternal life. (Such an understanding, of course, is entirely unbiblical, running counter to the doctrine Sola Fide—by faith alone—which is expressed in Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 11:5-6, and elsewhere.) And more than half of all professing Christians in America believe the Bible plus the teachings and traditions of man are necessary for living a Christian life that is pleasing and acceptable to God, rather than trusting in the clear assertion of 2 Timothy 3:17 that the teachings of God’s Word leaves the believer “thoroughly equipped” for every good work.
What has brought us to this sad station? How did the wheels come off “The Truth Track”? To be sure, there are many factors, including our sinful nature, a stubborn belief in universalism, an increasing desire for things below rather than things above, and simple spiritual sluggishness. But I am convinced that the men who stand in pulpits all across our country bear the greatest weight of responsibility for our drift away from Reformation truths. When pastors find it more important to preach messages that meet people at the level of “felt needs,” rather than true needs, we have begun our return to the Dark Ages.
The whole counsel of God is the light that must be directed into this dark and depraved world, not “gospel-lite” messages. When the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is no longer preached from our pulpits, we allow the lies of the world, the flesh, and the devil to infect our congregations. And thus it is no surprise to see survey results like these in a “cultural church” context that sees the average professing Christian attending church once a month, abandoning any thought of attending Sunday School or Bible studies which would add another hour at church, and little or no time for family devotions and personal Bible Study.
And what starts as an infection that is barely visible festers and becomes an insidious disease that is emptying out our churches. Why? Because motivational messages, inspirational insights, and secular stories will not hold up when the storm winds begin to blow and the waves of challenge come crashing down on you. And those storms come with great regularity! As I frequently remind our congregation at Cross Community Church, there are only three stages in life on this side of the grave. Either you are . . .
In the midst of a storm
Heading out of a storm
Or heading back into a storm!
So what is the way forward? I would insist that, even after 500 years, the Protestant church must keep reforming! We must reclaim the pulpit for its intended purpose: preaching the wisdom of the whole counsel of God, not the wisdom of the world. When we preach messages designed to tickle ears, meet felt needs, and fill seats, we forsake souls; God will call those who hold the privileged position of preaching His Word to account for their empty messages.
On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is my prayer that every pulpit will proclaim the inspired truth of Scripture alone, preaching salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!