Reasons to Believe

The Distinctives of Protestant Christianity Part 2

“I know what you are against, tell me what you are for!”

In part one of this series I discussed the beginnings of Protestant Christianity in the Reformation movement of the sixteenth century. The term “Protestant” was applied to a group of Christians who were protesting against what they perceived to be the theological excesses of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. However, Protestantism is more than just a negative reaction to Catholicism.

The early Protestants held three doctrinal positions that have come to be known as the characteristics of Protestant Christianity. Here are those uniting points enumerated:

  1. Justification by faith alone (sola fide)
  2. Scripture as the supreme authority in faith and practice (sola Scriptura)
  3. Priesthood of all believers

I will briefly explore the first doctrinal distinctive here and save the next two for successive installments in the series.

Justification By Faith Alone

The first theological distinctive is reflected in the Protestant rallying cry “Justification by faith alone.” In fact, the issue of justification was considered the central doctrinal matter under dispute between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century. The issue involves how sinful human beings are made right with a holy God. In other words, it focuses on the issue of salvation.

The Reformers argued vigorously that man’s righteousness before God depended not upon man’s own meritorious works, but rather upon God’s gracious work in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hence justification is the judicial (legal) act of God whereby he acquits the believer of wrongdoing and accepts the believer as righteous in his sight based upon the perfect imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ (Luke 18:14; Acts 13:39; Romans 3:20, 23-24, 28; 5:1-2; Galatians 2:16; 3:24; Titus 3:5, 7).

God declares the guilty sinner to be acquitted of his sins but also views him as righteous because of his personal union with Christ through faith. The father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (1483-1564), called justification the “great exchange.” In salvation, Christ takes the believer’s sins and the believer takes Christ’s righteousness.

The Protestant position on salvation did not imply that good works were somehow unimportant in one’s relationship with God. Rather, good works were the inevitable fruit of salvation instead of the root of salvation. As Luther so succinctly stated:

“Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone.”

According to Luther, a faith that truly justifies is a faith that is pregnant with works of loving obedience before God. In other words, an authentic faith leads to good works but good works do not necessarily lead to an authentic faith. The Reformers’ view of justification by faith alone came to be known in Latin as sola fide.

For the Protestant Reformers, justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross is the central point of the historic Christian gospel. A Theopedia article summarizes the upshot of the biblical doctrine of justification quite well:

“This doctrine maintains that we are justified before God (and thus saved) by faith alone, not by anything we do, not by anything the church does for us, and not by faith plus anything else.”

Protestant Christianity doesn’t teach that a person is justified by faith and works. Rather it teaches that a person is justified by a vibrant faith that works.

For an essay on the Christian doctrine of the atonement (including justification), see chapter 11 of my book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.

For a popular presentation of the doctrine of justification by faith, see John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ.

To read about the Protestant Reformation, I suggest beginning with two works by Yale historian Roland H. Bainton Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther and The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Subjects: Historical Theology

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.