Loss of Discernment Regarding What It Means to Be a Protestant

By Paul M. Elliott

There has been a loss of discernment concerning the nature of Roman Catholicism, what it means to be a Protestant, and the need to be vigorously Protestant. Today too few Christians really understand why the Reformation took place and what is at stake if it is reversed – and the Reformation is being reversed in our time. This loss of discernment is the direct result of the loss of discernment regarding church history.

Because of this, most Christians do not understand that the spread of false teachings such as Federal Vision theology, the Purpose-Driven Church philosophy, and the Emergent Church philosophy means the reversal of the Reformation and the return to a spiritual Dark Age. Allowed to spread, and carried to their logical ends, these anti-Scriptural agendas will wipe out all that was recovered by the Reformers in the sixteenth century. False teachers, and many Evangelicals generally, increasingly shun the name Protestant. Brian McLaren, a principal spokesman for the Emergent Church movement, has invented a revisionist definition of “Protestantism” that allows even Roman Catholics to come under a “Protestant” umbrella.

Most nominal Protestants do not realize that Rome’s centuries-old position, which is diametrically opposed to authentic Biblical Christianity on the central issues of Scripture and salvation, remains unchanged – as these passages from contemporary Catholic writings demonstrate:

[From The Catholic Encyclopedia] Protestants claim the following three qualities for justification: certainty, equality, the impossibility of ever losing it. Diametrically opposed to these qualities are those defended by the Council of Trent:

  • uncertainty [no one can be sure he is justified]
  • inequality [some are more justified than others]
  • amissibility [justification can be lost].

Since these qualities of justification are also qualities of sanctifying grace, see [the entry on] Grace.1

[And so, from The Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on “Grace”] Every adult soul stained.with original sin…must, in order to arrive at the state of justification, pass through a short or long process of justification, which may be likened to the gradual development of the child in its mother’s womb..

The Catholic idea maintains that the formal cause of justification does not consist in an exterior imputation of the justice of Christ but in a real, interior sanctification.. Although the sinner is justified by the justice of Christ, inasmuch as the Redeemer has merited for him the grace of justification, nevertheless he is formally justified and made holy by his own personal justice and holiness.2

The reason for the uncertainty of the state of grace lies in this, that without a special revelation nobody can with certainty of faith know whether or not he has fulfilled all the conditions that are necessary for achieving justification.3

.[O]ver and above faith other acts are necessary for justification, such as fear, and hope, charity, penance with contrition, almsgiving.. Faith alone does not justify.

The “justification by faith alone” theory was by Luther styled the article of the standing and falling [of the] church (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae), and by his followers was regarded as the material principle of Protestantism, just as the sufficiency of the Bible without tradition was considered its formal principle. Both of these principles are un-Biblical.4

The range of false teachings on Scripture and salvation plaguing the Evangelical church today are essentially those of Rome above. Men from across the ecclesiastical spectrum including Norman Shepherd, N. T. Wright, Chuck Colson, J. I. Packer, Rick Warren, and Brian McLaren all readily admit that they seek to reunite Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Since justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture over church tradition were the basis of the sixteenth century break, it is their view that Evangelicals and Catholics must reach an understanding on these points that will facilitate re-union.

But Antichristian Rome is patiently intransigent while Evangelicals are increasingly eager suitors; the ever more one-sided “compromises” in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents demonstrate this clearly. Reaching an “understanding” with Rome by definition means the surrender of authentic Biblical Christianity recovered at the Reformation, and Rome will not be satisfied until the surrender is complete. Thus the displacement of Protestantism in Reformed and Evangelical churches is a most welcome development to the Papists. The conditions that Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed in the United Kingdom forty-five years ago are the conditions in much of the Reformed church around the world today:

What of the state of the church?…We are going back to the pre-Reformation position.

What about the state of doctrine in the church? Before the Reformation, there was confusion. Is there anything more characteristic of the church today than doctrinal confusion, doctrinal indifference – a lack of concern and a lack of interest? And then perhaps the most alarming of all, the increase in the power, influence, and numbers of the Church of Rome, and the Romanizing tendencies that are coming into and being extolled in the Protestant church! There is no question about this. This is a mere matter of fact and observation. There is an obvious tendency to return to the pre-Reformation position; ceremonies and ritual are increasing and the Word of God is being preached less and less, sermons are becoming shorter and shorter. There is an indifference to true doctrine, a loss of authority, and a consequent declension..

I wonder, Christian people, whether I am exaggerating when I suggest that at the present time we are really engaged in a great struggle for the very life of the Christian church, for the essence of the Christian faith? As I see the situation, it is nothing less alarming than that.5

Five watchwords – the five solas – summarized the great truths reclaimed at the Protestant Reformation. If these are lost, all that was recovered at the Reformation is lost:

  • Sola Scriptura: Our doctrine is from Scripture alone.
  • Solus Christus: We are saved by Christ’s work alone.
  • Sola Gratia: Salvation is by grace alone.
  • Sola Fide: Justification is by faith alone.
  • Soli Deo Gloria: The glory belongs to God alone.

Today, both Reformed and Evangelical churches frequently deny them all – if not in words, most certainly in deeds.

The church exchanges Sola Scriptura for man’s fallible perspectives on Scripture; neo-liberals place their elastic interpretations of confessional standards above Scripture.

It exchanges Solus Christus for Christ-plus-works; the sufficiency of the imputation of His righteousness
to sinners is not taught, or openly denied.

It exchanges Sola Gratia for a view of “grace” which denies that God’s favor will, in the end, be unmerited except through the merits of Christ.

It exchanges Sola Fide for justification by man’s faithfulness.

Thus the church in practice denies Soli Deo Gloria: It removes Christ from His throne; it removes Scripture from the place of sole authority; human works and human wisdom are in the ascendant. Increasingly the Evangelical church suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, exchanging the truth of God for the lie (Romans 1:18, 25).

True Christians must oppose these developments with all their being. They must learn once again what it means to be truly and vigorously Protestant. James R. White declares:

It is my firm conviction that “Protestant” means absolutely, positively nothing unless the one wearing the term believes, breathes, lives, and loves the uncompromised, offensive-to-the-natural-man message of justification by God’s free grace by faith in Jesus Christ alone. As the term has become institutionalized, it has lost its meaning. In the vast majority of instances today a Protestant has no idea what the word itself denotes, what the historical background behind it was, nor why he should really care. And a label that has been divorced from its significance no longer functions in a meaningful fashion. We need a Reformation in our day that will again draw the line clearly between those who embrace the gospel of God’s grace in Christ and those who do not. And how one answers the question “How is a man made right with God?” determines whether one embraces that gospel or not.6

The Holy Spirit calls us to be Protestants. Scripture commands us in the most unequivocal terms to be true to the unalloyed Gospel and the unique authority of Scripture, both long veiled in darkness by Rome but brought back into the light at great cost by the Reformers.

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light.

Therefore He says: “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil [Ephesians 5:8-16].



1. “Justification” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08573a.htm. See also Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books, 1974), pages 261-263. The cover describes this book as “A one-volume encyclopedia of the doctrines of the Catholic Church, showing their sources in Scripture and Tradition and their definition by Popes and Councils.” The book bears the imprimatur (mark of official approval) of Rome.

2. “Sanctifying Grace” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, reproduced at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06701a.htm. See also Ott, pages 250-252.

3. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, page 262.

4. Catholic Encyclopedia, entry on “Sanctifying Grace.” See also Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pages 5-6, 253-254, 272-291.

5. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Remembering the Reformation,” in Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions 1942-1977 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), page 94.

6. James R. White, The God Who Justifies (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2001), page 26. Emphasis in the original.

11 thoughts on “Loss of Discernment Regarding What It Means to Be a Protestant

  1. amen Mike. I preached in a Calvary Chapel (wed. night) a few months back on this topic. During the sermon I casually mentioned a few church history references such as John Bunyan. Not a single person attending had ever read Pilgrims Progress, knew who Wycliffe was, or Jon Hus. It was sad.


  2. Lance, I know exactly what you mean. So many believers know nothing of church history and so they are vulnerable to all sorts of lies. On top of that, they are often resentful to those who attempt to teach them the truth. Yes, it is quite sad.


  3. Great insights here. One of the sad ironies is that most of those on this trip to Rome are celebrating the journey and will not only ignore the warnings of this post, but view them with disdain. Their ignorance of both Scripture and history makes them view the trip to destruction as moving to a more enlightened, tolerant and communal place. With your permission, I would love to repost this (with proper credits of course) on my blog. Let’s all pray that God opens the eyes of some.


  4. Amen, my brother. A large group of folks from my church meet on Sunday afternoons to read out loud from Andrew Millers, Short Papers on Church History. We started in January and now little more than halfway through. This book covers from the apostolic age to the mid 19th century, when Miller lived. He was a Baptist who documented the horrors of the Roman Catholic church and the providential kindness of God in caring for his people throughout history. It has been eye opening to many people and is a treasure that helps build up the church and guard against false teaching.


  5. I was listening to Dr. Peter Masters on the way to church, and he was practically addressing some of the important points mentioned here. Thankfully there are reformed pastors like him who are seeing these problems and call them for what they really are. We need to be more discerning, and this I preach mostly to myself as I haven’t been studying as I should have, to avoid being deceived ourselves and to lovingly warn our brethren who may have fallen in believing some of the anti-Biblical doctrines as well. We have to ask the Lord for discernment to avoid falling in compromises.


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