Is the Protestant Reformation Over and Did we Lose?

Let’s talk division.

The Pew Center for Religious life recently completed a survey that polled people’s thoughts on key issues that were at play during the Reformation 500 years ago. The headline story being that Reformation era divisions have lost much of their potency. The study found that people were more likely to believe the Catholic version of salvation that requires both good works and faith, while Luther’s suggestion that faith alone is the driving force of salvation seems to be falling out of fashion.

Here’s some data:

  • About half of U.S. Protestants (52%) say both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven, a historically Catholic position. The other half (46%) say that faith alone is needed to attain salvation. (Source: Pew study)

The full Pew report is interesting and more than worth your time to consider, especially as we go into summer mode and begin to think about planning for Christian education programs next fall.

The report also includes discussion of longer form, more open-ended questions that researchers asked their responders. It’s this bit of data about life and faith that is the most interesting to me.

"No good work can rely upon the word of God or line in the soul, for faith alone and the Word of God rule in the soul", Martin Luther, from "Here I Stand." “No good work can rely upon the word of God or line in the soul, for faith alone and the Word of God rule in the soul”, Martin Luther, from “Here I Stand.”

Here are some conclusions drawn from this data:

Generally being a good person and asking forgiveness for sins were among the most common actions mentioned as key to getting into heaven; other Christians in this category said that following the “golden rule” or God’s will is how one gains eternal life. When it comes to beliefs, Christians most commonly cited “belief in Jesus Christ” or “belief in God” as crucial to salvation. (see full report)

The Pew Center suggests that all this means there is less division between Catholics and Protestants on some of the key reformation issues. This may well be the case, but I think we can go a little deeper into this question if we really think about Luther’s point about faith alone.

Luther argued that faith alone was what brought salvation and that this means people are free to live their lives through Christ, unencumbered by a sense of duty to good works.

Permit me to make a comparison with this data and the current state of our nation’s soul.

We live in divided times, maybe even historically divided times. However, I am beginning to distrust this narrative. I think there are reasons that people feel divided that have nothing to do with reality. This Pew study suggests to the theologian in me that Christians in the nation are not as divided as we might expect. There is hope here that people might move towards finding more common ground than might seem possible given the 24-hour news cycle.

So here’s where I think this is useful:

  1. Have a conversation about salvation. We don’t tend to talk about it much, but I suspect if we did we would find a lot of shared ideas, some good discussion, and places to learn about each other.
  2. It could encourage you to read Luther, or one of the other reformers. In preparing for this article, I read Luther again and was struck by how wonderfully certain his words seem. It’s a perfect antidote to the fear, confusion, and distrust that is our current narrative.
  3. Read the study too. Consider how theology has entered the public sphere. Consider that James Comey quotes Luther in his recent book, A Higher Loyalty.

Here’s my final thought. Luther’s respect for freedom did not come alone. The great reformers expected, naively, that church discipline would remain even as theology changed. This can seem to suggest that an “anything goes” theology comes with this freedom. It doesn’t. Disciplined thoughtful, prayerful, and intentional action is what is needed. People of faith are once again called to be that light in the darkness. Here’s hoping that the study is correct and it might be easier to now see across theological aisles and find a shared heart waiting there.

That’s my two cents.

What’s yours? What does salvation mean to you?

Jeremiah RoodRev. Jeremiah Rood lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Amanda, daughter Evie and two small black cats. He has experience working in local congregations in Massachusetts. See more about him at Rev. Jeremiah’s ministry also includes spending a year in a detox working with struggling addicts and alcoholics. His time is now split between writing a book exploring these issues, being a stay at home dad and as a part-time librarian.

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