What is a Protestant?

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“And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” (Ac 17:2-3 AV)

The term Protestant has its origins in the history of the Reformation. In 1526 Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, at the Diet of Spires demanded unconditional submission to the Pope from the Electors/Princes of the German provinces. Six of the electors and two German cities protested that in matters relating to the glory of God and the salvation of their souls, their conscience demanded that they submit to God and the Scriptures. Therefore they could not obey the Emperor’s demands. Because of this protest they became known as Protestants.

It was 4 more years before the Emperor could give attention to this crisis. He did so at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Here the Protestant Princes were to be roundly condemned by the Emperor and the Roman Catholic Church. They had Philip Melancthon prepare a crystallized summary of their theology—The Augsburg Confession—which was presented to the Diet on June 25th, 1530. This is a classic statement of Reformation theology albeit with Lutheran overtones. Luther himself approved the document but could not appear in person because of a Papal ban.

As the Confession, signed by 6 electors and representatives of two German cities, was read the Roman Catholic Church representatives claimed to be able to refute its teaching from the Church Fathers. The Augsburg Confession’s statements had roundly condemned Roman Catholic dogma as “unknown to the Scriptures and the Fathers”. This led one of the Roman Catholic electors, George Duke of Saxony, to observe: “Then the Lutherans are firmly entrenched in the Scriptures and we are entrenched outside of them” (The History of Protestantism, J. A. Wylie).

While its original significance may be lost in many areas – it may be used merely as an ethnic identity – the term Protestant simply especially indicates a particular attitude to the Bible: “firmly entrenched in the Scriptures”— in fact, the apostolic use of the Scriptures as is exemplified here. Such an attitude is to be cultivated among us, not simply because of historic precedence, but because of it is urged upon us from the Bible itself.


The scriptures were Paul’s source for his teaching. He had a written source for his instruction. Even though Paul lived in the period of direct revelation and was himself as an apostle a channel of this Divine communication, the written word of God stood supreme as the source of truth. Cp Is 8:20, I Cor 14:37. Paul presented the Scriptures as the word of God, I Thess 2:2-5, 13. Paul embraced sola scriptura!

His methodology in handling the Scriptures.

  • Reasoned. He engaged in a discussion that applied the reasonable truth of the Scripture and presented it as a reasoned, dogmatic argument. He countered their opposition and disputed/debated with them. The Scriptures reveal intelligent truth to which man must apply his mind and which answers his every evil objection.
  • Opening. He divided and opened up the Scriptures in order to extract the sense and meaning of God’s word. Cp Luke 24:32 (same Gk).
  • Alleging. The primary idea in this term is to ‘set before’, as used in Mk 6:41, Matt 13:24 (put forth). But there is also the thought of a responsibility that follows the exhibition of truth, Luke 12:48 (committed), I Tim 1:18 (commit). Paul’s preaching involved a dogmatic and convicting application of what he had drawn out of the word that impressed his hearers with the duty to act upon it. The Bible means something and it demands a response!
  • Preached, v3. It was publicly announced and heralded.

Put together, these terms define Biblical preaching and also what it is to be a Protestant. The genius of Protestantism is this attitude to the Bible.


The Scriptural doctrine of redemption lies at the heart of Biblical Protestantism. This is what the methodology Paul employed arrives at.

The sufferings of Christ. These sufferings are seen to be absolutely necessary. This infers the nature of sin and the extent of man’s need. There is no other way of salvation possible, Gal 3:21 Acts 4:12. This is the substance of Scriptural revelation, Acts 3:21, 24, I Pet 1:10-11.

The finished nature of Christ’s work. This is asserted by His resurrection. Cp Rom 4:25 – He rose again ‘because of’ our justification, i.e. because it had been accomplished. Here is a critical difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic theology which asserts a necessary repetition of Christ’s sacrifice in the mass. The Scriptures clearly teach the uniqueness and finality of Christ’s atonement. Cp Heb 10:12, 14. This makes the Roman Catholic Mass a “dangerous deceit” and “a blasphemous fable” – the language of Article 31, Church of England 39 articles.


Paul’s final statement in some sense indicates the focus of all that he had done with regard to the Scriptures.

The apostolic emphasis was upon a person. There is no emphasis upon the organization of the church for salvation. This again is the simple result of the application of the message of the Scriptures. The Bible points to a man! Jesus of Nazareth—the Christ of God! The One to who all Scripture points; the One who has fulfilled every requirement for man’s redemption. As Jews they were naturally, inveterately opposed to this truth.

An invitation to faith. The purpose of Paul’s endeavour here was to draw his hearers to accept Christ as God’s Saviour. Cp believed, v4. Men are guided by the Scriptures to rest by faith in Christ alone. Cp Rom 10:4.

This is the essence of salvation. Cp I Thess 2:13, 1:9-10. Having received the word as God’s word it had an effect – producing repentance and the spirit of waiting for Christ’s return.

For these reasons God’s people should never fear being identified as Protestants—however the term may be used as an abusive label today. It is a badge of honour and identity with God, His word and His Christ.

One Reply to “What is a Protestant?”

  1. Hello Pastor Foster,
    Thank you for sending this to me. You taught me a bit of history regarding the origin of the word,Protestant,that I was not aware of. Praise God for raising up men like Luther,et. al.,who restored the Truth,always in Scripture ,but hidden by the Traditions of men in the church of the Beast of Rome for centuries.
    I am reading a history of the Waldenses, and it is thrilling to see that there were always those who held true doctrine,though most of their names are only known to God.
    Your sermon content is excellent,and a great encouragement to me.
    Yours in Him,

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