New Survey Finds Majority of Protestants Are (Maybe) Not Protestant

According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of U.S. Protestants agree that faith alone is needed to get into heaven while 52 percent say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven.

The conclusion I draw is that some people were reading the question as I did as being about justification, while many others were seeing it as merely about salvation. What it makes clear is that a large group of evangelicals gave the wrong answer based on what they thought the question was asking. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know based on these results how many people are actually “pseudo-Protestants” and how many are (like me) merely prone to reading too much into survey questions.  

 

The Story: A new survey claims 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. But is that true, or were respondents merely confused? [Note: This article has been significantly updated after several people pointed out that the questions asked by Pew Research Center do not really clarify the differences between Catholics and Protestants in the way in which I first understood their survey.]

The Background: According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of U.S. Protestants agree that faith alone is needed to get into heaven while 52 percent say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven. Originally, I had read that statement to mean that faith alone was needed for justification since that is the what seperates Catholics from Protestants, which was the point of Pew’s survey. Pew specifically identifies this as the sola fide (faith alone) position, which is indeed what Protestants believe about justification. However, as one theologian has pointed out to me, “We are justified by faith alone, with no works whatsoever as the necessary instrument. But we do not ‘get into heaven’ without the confirmation of that faith through good deeds, as many texts in the New Testament affirm, and which Protestants have historically believed.” (I agree with this point wholeheartedly, of course.)

Pew also attempted to gauge American’s position on sola scriptura—the traditional Protestant belief that the Bible is ultimately 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.

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. Among white evangelicals, only 44 percent express both convictions—37 percent believe one but not the other, while 19 percent do not embrace either position.

(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.” But does this survey really find that Protestants reject sola fide, or merely that they were confused by what was being asked?

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