Protestant Christians share the classic grand sacred narrative with other branches of Christianity: God created the world out of nothing; that world is good; and God populated it with plants, animals, and humans who enjoyed the earthly paradise and direct contact with God. But the humans, out of pride, rebelled against God, and this sinful act separated them from God, corrupted human nature, subjected them to death, and marred the perfect creation.
Because the break in relationship with God was infinite, but humans finite, there was nothing they could do to overcome the situation in which they had put themselves. Out of love, God became incarnate (was born as a human) in Jesus, and allowed Jesus to be put to death as a sacrifice that, because made by a being both human and divine (infinite), overcame human sin. Salvation is realized through believing and trusting in this work of Jesus on behalf of all people. This salvation includes both entering into a restored and spiritually life-giving relationship with God in the present and entering into and living in God's glorious presence in the eternal future; it involves both healing/restoration and renewal/transformation. This forgiveness is received as a gift of grace, that is, it is freely (or gratuitously) given.
Within this grand narrative (there are others in the Christian tradition, but this has been the dominant one), Protestantism has several distinctive plot twists. Protestants may distinguish themselves from each other on the basis of disagreement about church polity or organization, the doctrine of biblical authority, and national or ethnic identities. But they may also make distinctions based on beliefs such as the extent of the damage caused by sin, the role of human actions in salvation, and the way the Holy Spirit is present in the world.
Protestantism began (in both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions initiated by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin) with the belief that sin has completely destroyed the human capacity to trust God or in any way contribute to one's salvation. It teaches that there is no step a human can take to earn God's favor, or to respond to God's offer of forgiveness. God makes the gracious offer of salvation and since God chooses to give the gift of faith and enables the human being to respond favorably to the offer of salvation, God does everything.
For all three leaders this was a hopeful message (in fact it is literally good news, the translation of the Greek word "gospel"), because if salvation were to any extent in individual hands, it would certainly fail. God is far more wise, loving, and reliable. All three reformers denied human free will with respect to salvation. In other words, while humans are not automatons, on the key matter of making decisions and taking actions that effect salvation, the initiative is solely in God's hands. This is certainly true before the moment of justification (receiving God's forgiving grace)—if one asks for forgiveness, it is God who prompts one to ask. It is also true for many Protestants after justification—even saved Christians remain totally at the mercy of God. No action or work on their part keeps them in God's graces; God alone sustains them in salvation and though they are forgiven, they remain sinners.
The logical conclusion to this belief is articulated in the doctrine of "double predestination." Predestination means that God decides, from before the beginning of time as part of creation, the eternal destiny of every single person. An individual makes a decision for or against Christ according to the sovereignty of God. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin did hold that, after conversion, it was possible to perform good works out of love of neighbor and for the glory of God, rather than merely out of fear of hell, and these works (with the help of God's grace) could be seen as free. But they played no role in earning salvation. In terms of one's relationship with God, the power remains entirely in God's hands. For Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin the Holy Spirit was present in the word of God found in scripture, in the sacraments that are visible signs of the promises of the Gospel, and in the hearts of believers, bringing them to trust these promises.
Some Protestant denominations as a whole specifically deny this teaching of predestination. Methodists and other Wesleyans agree that sin is so devastating that the only hope for salvation is God's forgiveness. But they also believe that God's forgiveness is offered to all, not just to some who were chosen before time, and that God provides an initiating grace—"prevenient grace"—that gives each person the chance to respond freely to the offer. (Prevenient grace is God's grace given to all human beings before justification, making it possible for fallen human beings [which is everyone] to choose to accept God's offer of forgiveness.) God does not predestine anyone to either heaven or hell; rather, enabled by prevenient grace, human beings make the choice to accept or reject God's offer of forgiveness. Wesleyans also believe in a "second outpouring of the Spirit." God gives not only the prevenient grace to choose salvation, and justifying (forgiving) grace, but sanctifying grace, the ability with God's help to reject sin and live an increasingly holy life.