Protestant Sacramentalism--An Urgent Call to Rid Our Churches of a Subtle and Damning Plague

From 1665-1666 “The Great Plague of London” devoured the city’s populous. The bubonic plague, or black death as it was often called, was spread around London by fleas which lived on the bodies of rodents. The black death ravaged the city of London, one of the most densely populated cities in the world at that time, killing some 100,000 people in the course of a year and a half. People died so quickly and voluminously that coffins couldn’t be built fast enough, nor graves dug quickly enough, to keep up with the number of corpses. Mass graves had to be dug and unceremoniously filled with piles of decaying bodies. Construction workers today in London continue to unearth the bones of those who died, a grizzly reminder of one of London’s darkest times.  

Today, a greater plague of an even more terrifying and enduring nature is currently destroying the precious souls of men, women, and children within many Protestant churches. It is far worse than The Great Plague of London for it is often undetected, its consequences are eternal, and it destroys the eternal souls of men. What is this devastating and often undetected plague? I call it “Protestant Sacramentalism,” more commonly known as salvation or justification by works. Yes, I know, most Bible believing Protestant churches preach the gospel of grace. Nevertheless, even within the walls of many Protestant churches that preach the gospel of grace, the black death of salvation by works is unintentionally promoted.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic church. In Roman Catholicism, you are told that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died on the cross for your sins, was buried, rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God. The Roman Catholic church agrees with and uses the Apostles Creed! The Roman Catholic church teaches you must have faith and that you are saved by grace. All the various pieces of the gospel are present in the belief system of Roman Catholicism. Even in many Roman Catholic church buildings, the gospel is not only written out on the walls of the church building, but is also depicted in the pictures crafted into stain glass windows. Worshippers are surrounded with gospel truths, but still lost, not regenerated, not born again by the Holy Spirit. And that is why the Reformation was needed.

Roman Catholicism, though affirming the basic components of the gospel, fails in a crucial area—how to appropriate the gospel. The gospel is taught, but then comes the plague, the black death of Roman Catholic Sacramentalism, salvation by grace—plus works, salvation through faith—plus keeping the sacraments. And even if you keep the sacraments, you can’t be sure you will end up in heaven for you might commit a mortal sin right before you die and perish in hell. Why? Because Roman Catholicism does not teach salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. You have to keep the sacraments for a chance of making it to heaven. Even if you do all that the church asks you to do, you still have to go to purgatory, a hell for the faithful, in order to suffer and do penance for your sins. Purgatory may last millions of years, but eventually, you will end up in heaven. If you think the road to heaven is hard in this life, purgatory is a hell waiting for even the faithful after they die, according to the Roman Catholic church. Good works are even foisted upon the faithful after they die! The faithful must suffer in purgatory for their sins.

The reformers fought against salvation by works tooth and nail. Many died proclaiming salvation by the Word of God and grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. The Puritans during the years of The Great Plague of London championed the gospel of grace alone. In the years following The Great Plague of London, one of the earliest Baptists, John Gill, often referred to as “The Baptist Standard Bearer,” also preached the gospel of grace. Others like Charles Spurgeon and J. C. Ryle kept the tides of works salvation at bay in London and other places in the world. Many faithful Protestant preachers since have preached the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Yet even within faithful Protestant churches the black death of salvation by works creeps in unnoticed. Eternity alone will reveal the untold multitudes of “Good Protestants” who perished in hell, infected with the black death of a false gospel, all the while professing to believe in the gospel of grace!

You may be thinking that I am speaking in hyperbole, exaggerating the truth in order to make a point. You might even be willing to agree that the black death is present in Bible believing Protestant churches to a very small degree, but surely not a huge problem in the majority of faithful Protestant churches. As a Protestant pastor, let me try to convince you otherwise, so you can look to see if you have contracted the black death of works salvation, and so we can all take greater pains to rid our churches of preaching a gospel of grace plus works and a false system of Protestant Sacramentalism.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Pastor Jack, listen, I am a serious Bible believing Protestant. I go to a church where my pastor hammers away on the gospel of grace. Our creed requires us to believe in the gospel of grace. My local church is regularly sterilized from the infection of works salvation by faithful gospel teaching and preaching.” I hope that is the case, but in my 30 years of ministry in independent Bible churches and Baptist churches, I have not found it to be the case, even among those in my own congregation. The black death of works salvation is very resilient to the proclamation of the gospel and often survives under the most intense gospel preaching and teaching. Most who have been infected don’t even realize it until it is too late. Jesus speaks of them in Mt. 7:21-23 when he says:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (NASB)

A few quick observations. First, the religious unbelievers Jesus describes know who Jesus is. Second, they surely know about His death on the cross and resurrection. Third, they are described as “the many.” This is no isolated incident, this is an epidemic within the church! Fourth, they verbally affirm that Jesus is Lord. Fifth, they are doing many good works in Jesus’ name, supposedly even miraculous works. Sixth, they are confident they are saved and going to heaven. Seventh, they perish in hell having been described by Jesus as “workers of iniquity.” Eighth, and finally, Jesus clearly says to these professing Christians from local churches, “I never knew you. Depart from me.” Yes, Jesus knew about them, but He didn’t know them in a personal, saving way! They were never born again, never transformed by the gospel of grace. How could this be? How could people in the church, professing Jesus as Lord, doing good works in Jesus’ name, and eagerly anticipating heaven, find themselves rejected at last as workers of iniquity and cast into hell?

I hope I have your attention. Jesus warned against the black death of salvation by works so we could avoid it. Let me give you some diagnostic tools, so you can test yourself to see if the plague of works salvation is in your blood stream, the lives of others in your church, and if it is being unintentionally spread in your church by those who may themselves be infected. First, test yourself. Answer these simple questions.

1) How did you come to know the Lord? Answer that question in your mind right now. Think about how you became a Christian, your salvation testimony. Okay, do you have that answer in your mind? Good. Here is where it gets tricky because most who have the plague, don’t realize they have it. They don’t realize they have bought into Protestant Sacramentalism for they are still dead in their trespasses and sins, void of the Spirit. If you give them the correct answer up front, they will almost always agree with it, just like most Roman Catholics will agree with the facts of the gospel, all the while trusting in their works to save them. Bear with me, let me ask two more questions, then hopefully the test results will become clear.

2) What is that simple message, called the gospel or good news, that a person needs to believe or trust in order to be born again? Answer that question right now in your mind. What is the gospel? Got it? Good.

3) Last diagnostic question. If you were to die today, stand before Jesus, and if Jesus said, “Why should I let you into heaven?” What answer would you give Him? Answer that question. Got your answer? Okay, we are ready to look at our petri dish under the gospel microscope to see if the plague is present.

In answering the first question about how you came to know the Lord, did Jesus come to mind? Be honest. God knows your thoughts. He knows the truth. Did you think of Jesus and what Jesus did? Or did you think about growing up in a Christian home? Did you think about going to church? Did you think about being baptized? Did you think about the time you asked Jesus in your heart? Did you think about the time you made a decision for Christ? Did you think about the time you went forward, prayed the sinner’s prayer, raised your hand, or signed a prayer card, started attending church? If your mind went to Jesus and what Jesus did, good! However, if your mind went to what you did, then you may test positive for the plague of salvation by works! It’s possible you are not a Christian; you are not born again; you don’t know the Lord. If you were to die today, you would probably perish in hell, if your mind went to your works. I don’t say this to be mean or unkind, but to warn you that your soul is in peril! You must be born again! I will address how a person is born again in a minute. Please bear with me as we finish our diagnostic test.

Now, what did you answer for question #2? Many faithful Protestants, who sit under faithful gospel preaching, don’t answer question 2 correctly. They don’t know the gospel. What is your answer? What is the message that must be believed in order to be rescued from the wrath to come? Now compare your answer to this example: “Jesus died on the cross for our sins, was buried, and rose again on the third day to show He alone has power to forgive sins and conquer death. If you repent of your sin and believe in Jesus Christ alone to save you, you will be born again, forgiven, justified, and receive the free gift of eternal life.” Now your definition probably wasn’t exactly like that, which is okay as long it included: 1) Jesus; 2) Jesus’ death for our sins; 3) Jesus’ resurrection from the dead; and 4) the need to repent and/or believe in Jesus Christ and the work He accomplished to save us. You can phrase it many different ways, but whatever way you do phrase it, the gospel boils down to Jesus, what He did, and how to appropriate who He is and what He did. The gospel is appropriated, or its benefits received, by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. If you missed all or any of those key ingredients of the gospel, you may have the plague. In fact, in my many years of sharing the gospel with professing Christians, I have discovered those with the plague usually can’t articulate the gospel, even if they sit under gospel preaching every week! I have counseled members of my church who sat under a relentless weekly barrage of gospel messages and still, they couldn’t articulate the gospel! They never mention Jesus! Why is that?

Because Satan snatches away the Word of God after it has been sown. Because the fear of persecution causes many who hear the gospel to reject it. Because the worries of the world and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the Word out (Mt. 13:1-23). Until the Holy Spirit, by grace, draws a sinner to Christ (Jn. 6:44), opens their heart to the gospel (Acts 16:14), grants them faith (Phil. 1:29), and grants them repentance (Acts 5:31; 11:18; II Tim. 2:25), they will not believe. The Word of God says you must know the gospel in order to be saved. The gospel is only understood by the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The gospel is “THE power of God for ALL who believe” (Rom. 1:16; I Cor. 1:18; emphasis mine). If you do not know the gospel, you have the black death clinging to you. There is no getting around it. No one is saved by any other message than the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no alternate message, no broad way to heaven, no way to get to heaven by grace plus works. If you are a bit scared at this point, shaken because you have failed to answer one or both of the first two questions, bear with me, I will get to the cure soon!

Let’s consider the last question: If you happened to die today and stand before Jesus and Jesus said, “Why should I let you into heaven?” How did you answer that question? There is only one correct answer. It can be phrased in many ways, but it is pretty simple and must include certain elements. If your mind raced to what you have done, your Christian upbringing, going forward at an altar call, praying the sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus in your heart, making a decision for Christ, being baptized, etc., then most certainly, you are infected with the black death of works salvation. You are perishing and you have yet to be born again. Your answer to Christ would have to be something like this, “Because I believe you died for me,” or “I believe you died for my sins and rose again,” or “I have placed my faith in what you accomplished on the cross for me and your shed blood.” Something like that. You would have to acknowledge Jesus and what He accomplished, and your faith in those things, not anything you accomplished, not any of your good works or deeds, but only His.

I know this may be disturbing and unsettling to some who read this, but if you did not answer one or more of these questions accurately, I hope you are disquieted enough to examine your faith for the Bible commands us to do so (II Cor. 13:5). Examining your faith won’t ever hurt you, and it often helps. When we examine our faith, it can reveal that we are infected with the black death and are trusting in Protestant Sacramentalism. It may reveal you are deceived, deluded into trusting in grace plus works. Consider the chart below and the similarities between Roman Catholic and Protestant Sacramentalism.

Do you see the similarities between Protestant Sacramentalism and Roman Catholic Sacramentalism? Both agree with the facts of the gospel. Both profess to believe in the gospel e.g., who Jesus is and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Both affirm Jesus’ resurrection. Both affirm the need to have faith in Jesus. Both affirm that salvation is by grace. And, both ask the sinner to do some human work to get saved. There is little difference. Both corrupt the gospel of grace with human works. Many Protestants have and are today, even in my own congregation, trusting in “Protestant Sacramentalism” to save them, not in Jesus Christ alone.

If you are thinking to yourself, “I don’t see a problem with asking people to do something like coming forward or praying the sinner’s prayer as along as the gospel is preached.” Maybe you are thinking of your own life, or maybe you have asked others to participate in a form of Protestant Sacramentalism and you feel the need to defend what you have experienced or done. If that is the case, let me see if I can persuade you to change your mind. Consider the book of Acts as a test case. The book of Acts is one of the larger New Testament books and describes the work of the Holy Spirit to establish the Church. Many gospel presentations and conversions are described in the book of Acts, which makes the book of Acts a great place to look to see how those in the early church were born again. We will survey four different categories of texts to see how the New Testament Church grew. All I ask is that you compare what the book of Acts says to the various kinds of Protestant Sacramentalism you see practiced in Protestant churches today.

What gospel message was preached in the book of Acts? Acts often gives summary statements of what was preached. Here are some examples. The Apostles were “speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2:11); “preaching or proclaiming Jesus,” or “Jesus as Lord,” or “Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 2:36; 5:42; 8:4-5, 25); or “preaching the resurrection” or “Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection” (Acts 1:23; 2:22-24; 2:25-35); or “preaching or solemnly testifying the Word of God” or “preaching the Word of the Lord” (Acts 6:7; 8:25); or “Preaching the good news” (Acts 8:25); or “Preaching the kingdom of God” (Acts 8:12; 20:25); or “Preaching repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21); or “Testifying the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). It would be very helpful to take time to compare exactly what the Apostles preached in the texts that give us more detail, to what many Protestants churches are preaching today. You can do that in your own time by carefully reading through Acts. Reading through the book of Acts carefully will reveal if the black death of Protestant Sacramentalism has infected you, others, or is being preached in your church.

What were people told to do to in order to be saved in the book of Acts? Consider what you were told to do, what you tell people to do when you evangelize, and what you see your pastor or others doing in your church when evangelizing. See if your practices and the practices of others match up with what the Bible says in the book of Acts. There is 1 occurrence in Acts where people are told to, "Call on the name of the Lord" (Acts 2:21). Another occurrence of, “Be saved!” (Acts 2:40). There are 3 instances where people are told to merely “believe” the gospel (Acts 10:43; 13:39; 16:31). They weren’t asked to do anything else. The most notable text being the Philippian Jailer, who after asking how he could be saved, was told, “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” But what do you suppose is the most frequent thing people were told to do in order to be saved? Most frequently, 7 times, people were told to “repent,” “repent and turn to God,” or “repent and return” (Acts 2:37-38; 3:19; 17:30; 26:20) or variations of repent i.e., “turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18); or “turn from vain things to a living God” (Acts 14:15); or new converts are described as having “turned to God” (Acts 15:19). Is this what you hear coming from the pulpit of your church? Is this what you say when evangelizing the lost? Is it what you see others doing in your church? We must submit to the Word of God!

Please note that no one was ever told to go to the anxious or mourner’s bench. There were no altar calls. No one was asked to come forward. No one was told to sign a prayer card or raise their hand or pray the sinner’s prayer or ask Jesus in their heart or make a decision for Christ! Ever! Not even once anywhere in the book of Acts or even the entire Bible for that matter! There is no Protestant Sacramentalism in the book of Acts. I would strongly urge you to use biblical terminology when sharing the gospel and when giving your testimony, so as not to infect others with plague of works salvation. Do what the Bible says and no more. After preaching Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected from the dead, call people to repent of their sins and believe in Him alone for salvation. God will save who He will. Man-made additions to the gospel will only muddy the waters of the gospel and may cause people to trust in whatever it is you might ask them to do, rather than Jesus Christ. God’s method cannot be improved upon. No man-made method can increase the number of converts. Pray, preach the gospel, and let God save whom He will. God’s method is so simple, but how many Protestant churches, while railing against Roman Catholic Sacramentalism, have invented a sacramental system of their own?

How did people respond to the gospel as recorded in the book of Acts? In one instance we read, “The numbers of disciples increased becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). And in another instance, we are told, “the Word of God kept growing and multiplying” (Acts 12:24). That is how Luke describes the increase in the number of converts. Granted, these are summary statements, but they are very interesting. Another reference says, “They received the Word and 3,000 were added to the church” (Acts 2:41). Saul, before becoming Paul, merely cried out, “who are you Lord” (Acts 9:5). You remember what Titus 3:5 says at the beginning of that verse? “He saved us.” God saves people. Those who are saved are passive, which means, they don’t save themselves, but receive the action of God saving them. God is the only one doing the saving. 

But what do you expect is the most frequent description of how people responded to the preaching of the gospel? Acts reveals that 15 times people were said to have “believed” (Acts 4:4; 9:42; 14:23; 15:7; 17:12, 34; 19:2, 18; 28:24); and a variety of texts tell us what was believed in e.g., “they believed in Jesus as Lord and Christ” and “as resurrected from the dead” (Acts 5:14); or “believed with all their heart and believed Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 8:37); or “believed in God” (Acts 16:34); or “believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21); or “heard, rejoiced, glorified, and believed in the Word of God,” (Acts 13:48); or “had Faith” (Acts 15:9); or “received the Word of God” (Acts 11:1). That is how those who were saved in the book of Acts were born again. Notice, they were not asked to do anything else to get saved. The Holy Spirit granted sinners saving grace, drew them to Christ, illumined their minds to the truth, granted them repentance and faith so that they believed—by the grace of God alone. How do we know this? This brings us to the fourth category of texts from Acts.

What did God do to save people according to the book of Acts? There is a reference to “the Lord adding to the number of those being saved” (Acts 2:47). God did it. Another reference to people “being saved through the grace of the Lord” (Acts 15:11). Saving grace is not of our works. There is reference to “the Lord opened her [Lydia’s] heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul [the gospel]” (Acts 16:14). God enables people to understand the gospel and believe. There is a reference to God “appointing to eternal life the number of those who would believed” (Acts 13:48). God predestines, choses, and appoints those who will believe. There are two references to “God granting people the ability to repent” (Acts 5:31; 11:18). Repentance is not a work of man, because God is the one who grants sinners the ability to repent by His grace. There are three occurrences of “the Holy Spirit empowering or filling the preacher” (Acts 1:5, 8; 2:2-4) with the end result being the conversion of souls. And four occurrences of “The Holy Spirit being poured forth or falling on those who believed” (Acts 2:17-18; 6:5; 10:44; 11:15). As Jesus told Nicodemus in Jn. 3:3-8, “You must be born again” by the Holy Spirit.

What does this fourth category of texts tell us as a whole? God is the one who saves sinners. The mechanism or means by which He saves sinners is by grace, through faith, in the gospel preached. As Titus 3:5 tells us, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness. . .” Notice Titus 3:5 doesn’t merely say that we are not saved by works, but even works done in righteousness. No works of any kind or degree can be added to the gospel or it nullifies grace.  

Where did Protestant Sacramentalism come from? All men are prone to try and earn their way to heaven. But apart from our natural inclination to save ourselves, Protestant Sacramentalism has its roots in the good intentions of faithful men who merely wanted to identify those whom the Lord was saving. Faithful pastors like to know who has repented and been born again so that the new convert can be encouraged, discipled, and baptized. But the desire to identify converts, and sometimes even to boast about the number of converts, led some to introduce man-made works at the end of their gospel presentations. Instead of doing what the Bible says to appropriate the gospel, an additional step is added after the gospel is preached to identify those who believe. The gospel of grace may be faithfully proclaimed, but then a man-made work, a “Protestant Sacrament” is offered for those who “want to become Christians, get saved, have their sins forgiven, or receive the free gift of eternal life.” The man-made work is substituted or added to the simple call to repent and believe. Many trust in what they were asked to do to save them rather than the gospel. Of course, that means they aren’t saved, for you cannot be saved by works.

Thus, the black death of salvation by grace plus works has spread through Protestant churches in the past and continues to do so today. It is a problem in all Protestant denominations, churches I associate myself with. Many, if asked to share their salvation testimony, run to an extra-biblical work they were asked to do after they heard the gospel preached. They will tell you when they went forward, prayed a prayer, asked Jesus into their heart, or made a decision for Christ. They don’t tell you when they understood the gospel, were convicted of sin, understood what Jesus accomplished on the cross, His resurrection, and when they repented of their sin and believed in Jesus. Their “testimony” sounds nothing like what is described for us in the book of Acts, because it is not a saving testimony!

We don’t need to develop man-made sacraments to identify or number those who have come to Christ. When a person repents and is truly born again, they self-identify! You don’t need to get them to do anything. You can’t beat them away with a stick! They froth at the mouth for Jesus. They are so excited, transformed, full of joy and the Holy Spirit, that they hunger for the Word of God and love the fellowship of the saints. It’s almost like they have become new creatures in Christ, born again to newness of life! You don’t need to identify them, for they find and reveal themselves to you with joy inexpressible!

The danger of giving assurance to someone with the plague of works salvation. What confuses things even more, and makes an already bad plague worse, is that some actually do repent and believe in Jesus before, during, or after being asked to perform a “Protestant Sacrament.” Their life does change, not because they did some extra-biblical man-made work, but because they repented of their sin, believed in Jesus Christ, and were born again by the Holy Spirit. Because they are brand new converts, it is not clear to them what exactly saved them because they heard the gospel, repented, believed, and then did what was asked of them. They often pass the plague on to others unintentionally, because when they consider their own salvation experience, it included participating in a “Protestant Sacrament.” Without a doubt, some are born again who participate in extra-biblical works, but the vast majority are led astray into trusting in the extra-biblical work and what they did to become a Christian.

To make matters even worse, these infected people are often encouraged in their unbelief by the pastor and others in the church. They are told they are born again, given assurance that they can never lose their salvation, are baptized, and brought into the membership of the church, strengthening their confidence that they are indeed saved by grace, even though they are trusting in their works. Like the poor deceived souls in Mt. 7, they try to live their lives as Christians, but are void of the Spirit. They often don’t discover they have the black death, until it is too late. We must help them!

Discover and point plague infected Protestants to the only cure. It is easy to spot those with the plague if you ask them about their testimony, the gospel, and if they have assurance they are going to heaven and why. I do this on a regular basis to people in my own congregation, people we have over to our house, to those I counsel, and to those I meet. I remind myself that if they have the plague, they will not see it. They will be like those in Mt. 7, convinced they are on their way to heaven, serving in church, professing Jesus as Lord, doing good works in His name. They will almost always affirm that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Yet, listen closely to their testimony and you will see them run to their works for assurance. Ask them to articulate the gospel, and often they will be unable to do so. You know that if they can’t articulate the gospel, they can’t be born again. Ask them if they have assurance that they are going to heaven and if so, why. If they talk about what they have done, rather than what Jesus has done, you know the black death clings to them.

If you suspect that someone has the plague, remember, the only cure is the patient, loving, presentation of the gospel that calls sinners to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, who was crucified and resurrected from the dead. Pray, for the Holy Spirit’s help. As Paul wrote to the believers on the Island of Crete, “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:4-7).