Protestantism’s Ironic Rejection of Grace

By Graham Glover

Wait, what? Protestants reject grace?

Huh? Isn’t it the other way around? Aren’t Protestants all about grace?

The popular narrative says that Protestantism was born to combat the false doctrines of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches who teach that we are forgiven and made right with God not by grace alone, but by grace and works. Protestantism claims that its intent was to “reform” the Christian faith back to its original and true teaching – a teaching that proclaims salvation is found only and exclusively in God’s grace.

And that narrative is not wrong. We are indeed forgiven by grace alone. Our salvation is found only and exclusively in God’s grace.

So, what’s the rub? How do Protestants reject grace?

Protestants reject grace when they reject the sacraments. But Protestants don’t reject the sacraments, do they? Technically, no. Protestants perform the sacraments. They do the sacraments. They even talk about the sacraments. But Protestants have a fundamentally flawed understanding of what the sacraments are. In Protestantism, sacraments are something we do. They are our way of showing God that we are, in fact, true believers in Him. In Protestant sacramental theology, it’s us to God – not God to us. For Protestants, the sacraments are a work – an ordinance that must be done, or at least one that we do. And because they are a work, they do not convey grace. They do not create or sustain faith. For the Protestant, the sacraments aren’t grace filled things. They’re work filled things.

Does this mean Protestants reject grace? Of course not. Protestant theology is ripe with grace. Ask a Protestant how one is forgiven, how we are made right with God, how we warrant eternal salvation – and you will get an answer that says, by God’s grace. And once more, this is correct. We are indeed forgiven, made righteous, and saved by God’s grace.

The problem for the Protestant comes in how we receive this grace. Protestants reject that grace is poured out in Holy Baptism. They reject that grace is conferred in Holy Absolution. They reject that grace is made real in the Holy Eucharist. And they reject how this grace is transferred in Holy Orders.

Every single time Protestants reject these means of grace, they reject grace itself.

Ironic, isn’t it? That a movement wed to the notion that we are saved by grace, fails so epically in embracing the very means by which this grace is given.

I’m not suggesting that Protestants aren’t recipients of grace. They most assuredly are. They hear and believe the same Word of God as other Christians, itself a means of grace. They confess faith in the same Lord. They trust is the same Savior. When water is applied, and the Trinitarian formula spoken, they too receive the benefits of Holy Baptism. When confession is made, and forgiveness pronounced, they are freely and completely forgiven. With bread and wine, coupled with the Words of our Lord, they too are recipients of the great high feast Christ gives His Church. And when they set aside men for purposes of representing our grace-giver, they put into place every opportunity for grace to be proclaimed and offered.

The problem isn’t Protestantism’s narrative of grace alone. It’s not their claim that forgiveness and salvation is dependent solely upon grace. The issue is Protestantism’s refusal to confess that this grace is offered and given in the sacraments. For a rejection of the salvific nature of the sacraments is a rejection of grace itself.

Quite an indictment of Protestantism from a Protestant. Ah, but Lutherans aren’t Protestants…