The False Gospel of Protestantism
This article marks the close of my bi-weekly writing at Conciliar Post. It has been a joy to contribute and discuss the faith here. I hope I have produced a coherent framework in these articles for viewing all five branches of Christianity as one common faith to be embraced and learned from across denominations and lines of tradition. In my final regular article, I have no intent to malign Protestantism since I myself continue to congregate and worship with Protestants. Yet I do hope to clarify how the gospel which evangelical Protestants generally preach is not only a false gospel, but is especially dangerous when coupled with the Protestant battle cry of Sola Fide, “faith alone.” I look forward to dialoguing in the comments with those who may disagree.
In 1520, Martin Luther published “A Treatise on the New Testament That is the Holy Mass.” In it, Luther penned an idea which had never before been uttered in all of Christian history. He claimed that the gospel is the message of the atoning death of Jesus:
For the whole Gospel is nothing but a proclamation of God’s grace and of the forgiveness of all sins, granted us through the sufferings of Christ, as St. Paul proves in Romans x [Rom. 10:9, 11, 13]; and Christ in Luke xxiv [Luke 24:46, 47].1
The bracketed references above are from the quoted text, yet the referenced passages do not employ the word “gospel” at all. Jesus defined the gospel in Mark 1:14-15 which reads, “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the gospel of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’ ” Where the NKJV and others read in this passage “is at hand,” the Greek is the past tense of the verb “approach” or “arrive.” The gospel is the good news that the kingdom of God has come near in the person of King Jesus to destroy the authority of sin and of the evil one. See Matthew 12:28, John 12:31, Acts 26:18, Colossians 1:13, and 1John 3:8.
Jesus preached God’s kingdom and called it the gospel for three years. He commanded His disciples to preach the same gospel (Luk 10:9-11; Mat 24:14). When He rose from the dead, Acts 1:3 says He says that He taught the disciples for forty days “the things of pertaining to the kingdom of God.” When He had ascended, the disciples preached the kingdom of God throughout the book of Acts (Act 8:12; Act 28:30-31). In fact every time the apostles ascribed the title “Christ” to Jesus, they were referencing Psalm 2 which presented Jesus as the “Anointed” King whom God appointed to rule the earth and defeat every worldly authority.
Luther’s diversion from fifteen hundred years of Christianity illustrates why Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox members of Conciliar Post find it necessary to disagree with articles espousing Sola Scriptura. In order to teach false doctrine, one must misuse Scripture. In order to misuse Scripture, one must ignore Christian Tradition. Had Luther leaned upon Tradition, he might have defined the gospel by the words of Clement of Rome, a direct disciple of Peter, who wrote at the end of the first century:
The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming the kingdom of God was at hand.2
Luther could have followed the trail of gospel definitions from the lips of Jesus in Scripture all the way down to Thomas Aquinas who wrote in the thirteenth century:
Since Christ said at the very outset of the preaching of the Gospel: “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17), it is most absurd to say that the Gospel of Christ is not the Gospel of the kingdom.3
THE DANGEROUS GOSPEL
It may appear to some that I am only splitting hairs, since the idea which Luther called “gospel” is valid in and of itself. That is to say that although the arrival of God’s kingdom is the gospel, it remains true that God does offer (just as Luther stated) “grace and of the forgiveness of all sins, granted us through the sufferings of Christ.” Yet for five hundred years, Protestants have promised people that they will be saved — if they only believe (Sola Fide) this gospel of the atoning work of Jesus. Scriptura never offers salvation to those who believe that Jesus died for them. To the contrary, scripture demands that we believe that Jesus is the “Christ,” a Psalm 2 term for the King of all the earth. It also demands that we believe that He is the “Son of God,” a Psalm 2 term for the King of all the earth. For example:
“but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” John 20:31
“that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9
“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…” 1John 5:1
Scripture demands that we believe the gospel of the kingdom, not in the atonement in order to gain life. While the atonement is true, Scriptura never hinges eternal life or salvation on the condition of Sola Fide in the atonement of Jesus.
Consequently, we should grapple with the fact that it is Luther’s false gospel which makes the notion of sola fide possible. If the gospel really were the atonement of Jesus, then one can imagine believing in his atonement without exhibiting good works. A Christian could be sincerely grateful for the death of Jesus, yet be wholly incapable of obeying Him.
Once we give proper credence however, to the gospel of Christian tradition, then we find it impossible to claim sola fide. For anyone and everyone who believes Jesus is the Christ — the Psalm 2 Son of God and the Lord of all the earth — will necessarily exhibit works of obedience. For the ultimate contradiction would be to claim that Jesus is our Master and King, all the while disobeying everything that He commanded. If I do not do what Jesus commanded, then I obviously do not believe that He is the Christ. Am I saved then by works, or am I saved by faith? The answer is “Yes,” for the two cannot be separated once the gospel of Scriptura and Tradition is identified.
For 500 years, many Protestants have promised that everyone gains eternal life who believes Sola Fide that Jesus died for them. For example, consider the gospel according R.C. Sproul or the gospel according to John Piper. As a result, we have countless false assurances. Here in the buckle of the Southern Bible Belt where I live, it is rather difficult to find anyone who does not believe that Jesus died for their sins. Far less often however, do we find people who devote themselves to obeying Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God and Lord of all the earth. I do not say lightly that I sincerely fear that many Protestant preachers are causing the little ones to stumble and placing themselves in danger of the millstone. If Jesus is not your King, He is not your Savior.
I close by addressing what seems to me the most obvious objection to these thoughts. If the twin authorities of Scriptura and Christian Tradition demand that we believe in the kingship of Jesus, and if such belief necessarily entails obedient works, then have we perhaps upended Sola Gratia and demanded that believers earn eternal life by laboring for God’s approval?
Nothing could be further from the case. The Protestant concern about works-versus-grace stems from the Protestant idea atonement, which ignores the first 1,000 years of Christian tradition. As explained in this article, the atonement of Scriptura and of Tradition is an atonement of recapitulation and transformation, not of substitutionary punishment. Those who have been atoned will exhibit works of obedience because we have been transformed from rebels into obeyers. Obedient works are as natural to those born of the Spirit as sin is natural to those born of Adam. When one understands atonement as transformation, the question of works-versus-grace dissolves entirely. We do not work obedience to earn anything. We work obedience because we have been transformed into workers of obedience.
To the Protestant reader, I may appear to have fired too many arrows at one branch of Christianity. How can one respond if the very gospel of Protestantism has been questioned along with doctrines like Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, and in other articles even the Protestant Canon? Conciliar Post offers diverse examples of Journeys of Faith in which Protestants shifted to other branches of Christianity. Yet it has been my preference (thus far at least) to remain connected with a Protestant congregation even after wrestling with the shortcomings of Protestantism. I remain where I am primarily because I do not believe that any of the five branches of Christianity offers a perfect version of the faith in isolation. Rather, our faith seems best understood when peering across all five traditions. I choose to embrace and to continue learning from all five branches. I believe for example, that Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy have much to learn from the Protestant fervor for scripture translation and personal study of scripture. I also believe that all three Western branches can learn from Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East.
I am blessed to connect with a Protestant congregation which allows the theological freedom to disagree without dividing from one another. Whatever the Protestant reader does with the challenges that I have presented above, I pray you will learn much more about the wealth of our two thousand year old Christian Tradition rather than being limited to just one very modern slice of the faith. Conciliar Post is a great place to begin doing exactly that.
- Luther, Martin. “Works of Martin Luther” (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915) 321.
- Clement of Rome. “1st Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians,” ch XVII.
- Aquinas, Thomas. “Theologica,” Question #106, Reply to Objection #4.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.