Putting the ‘Protest’ Back in Protestant Romans 3:19-2 10/29/2017
The protest of the reformers was a positive witness to the power of God. We have the privilege of making that protest today.
In March, 1529, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, called a council of the religious leaders and the princes to deal with the growing rebellion against the established church.
That rebellion had started on October 31, 1517 by Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 statements or thesis on the door of the Wittenberg University door. It is that date we honor 500 years later – today.
This 1529 council met in the German town of Speyer (sometimes spelled “Spires”), and the gathering itself was called the second Diet of Speyer, to distinguish it from a previous diet held in that city three years earlier in 1526.
Just to be clear: In politics, a diet is a formal deliberative assembly. The term is derived from Medieval Latin dietas, and ultimately comes from the Latin dies, “day.” The word came to be used in this sense because these assemblies met on a daily basis.
The first Diet of Speyer had provided a measure of religious tolerance and in the interim between the two gatherings, the princes of several of the states in the empire had actually encouraged the reform movement in the churches in their jurisdictions. But now, at this second council, Emperor Charles, who had never been a supporter of the reformers, announced that he would no longer tolerate disobedience.
The diet quickly moved to reinstate previous sanctions against Luther and to outlaw the changes that Luther and others had proposed. Among those changes were such things as:
- allowing the laity to receive the cup of wine and not just the bread during Holy Communion;
- permitting priests to be married;
- recognizing the authority of the Bible as opposed to that of the pope;
- & dropping prayers to saints; and several other matters.
One of the big doctrinal changes the reformers called for was the rejection of good works as a means of salvation, and the adoption of a new theological understanding — something the reformers called justification by faith.
Our reading from Romans 3 today is a foundation from Scripture for that position. In this reading from Romans, the apostle Paul argues that keeping the Law of Moses — which the reformers saw as a form of good works — does not put people right with God.
Paul asserted that even if we could keep the law perfectly, we would not be justified by it because the purpose of the law is to define sin; the Law is to teach us what sin is. Paul then states what does put us right with God: “The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” — justification by faith.
To further emphasize the point, Luther added the word “alone” to Paul’s statement about faith — “we are justified by faith alone” — because Luther felt that showed Paul’s actual intention in these verses. The reformers were not against good works, but they didn’t want people to view them as the pathway to salvation, when clearly, in their reading and ours yet today, the Bible says that faith in Jesus Christ is the way.
Besides celebrating the start of the Reformation on Oct. 31, 1517 our interest today is in what happened as a result of this uncompromising ruling from that second Diet of Speyer.
On April 19, while the diet was still in session, six of the princes and representatives of 14 cities, citing freedom of conscience, joined together to present a written protest against the diet’s position. In this document, they declared that because each person is responsible to God, they couldn’t agree to abide by the will of the majority.
At this point, Ferdinand, the emperor’s brother, who was presiding, not only refused to accept the document, but adjourned the diet. No more diet; no more assembly!
Not willing to let that stop them, the reformers sent their “Protestation” along with an appeal to the emperor, Charles V, who responded by having the bearers of the document tossed in prison.
In the vocabulary of that time and place, that protest document was called Protestatio, and hence, the entire group of reformers came to be branded “Protestants.” Thus, we who belong to any of the denominations that have sprung from the Reformation root have our beginnings in a protest — a protest movement, if you will.
So how do you feel about being linked historically to a protest? Probably you’ve never thought about that, but you may have some reaction when you think of protests that occur in our society today.
Think of any of the major political or social issues in play in our country today, and there seems to be a lot, and you can probably recall that at some point, groups have organized to march or rally in protest against one side or the other of the issue. Some of those protests stay within the bounds of decency and legality, but others turn offensive and/or violent.
So maybe being the inheritor of a movement born in protest might give us some pause. However, protest is not limited to angry chanting and in-your-face demonstrations. In fact, in the 16th century at the time of Luther, protest was understood less in the sense it is today and more in terms of being a positive witness.
Luther, his friend, and his supporters may well have sung, “We Shall Overcome” had the tune and lyrics been available. But in one notable scene in the early years of the Reformation, as Luther stood before the Emperor, all he did was to say, “Here, I stand!”
Indeed, the reformers understood themselves as witnessing to the authority of Scripture, to the idea that every person could pray directly to God on his or her own behalf, and, as previously mentioned, to the idea that we are saved through faith and not through works.
To us today, all of this seems a long way back, and we may well ask what significance, if any, it has for us.
Thankfully, Protestants and Catholics are not at war with each other today — with the possible exception of lingering animosities in Northern Ireland. In fact, we are more aware of how much we hold in common with each other than we are of a few differences in emphases.
Many people think of the Protestants and Catholics merely as slightly different “flavors” of Christianity, but drawn from the same source — belief in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. While there is some oversimplification in that statement, it’s essentially true.
In fact, each time we recite the Apostles’ Creed, and we will do so today, we affirm our belief in “the holy catholic church,” which, when written with a lowercase “c,” refers to the body of beliefs and traditions we have received from the very first followers of Jesus, the apostles and the early church. That apostolic faith is the basis of the universal catholic church, lowercase “c,” that encompasses all Christian denominational and sectarian identities.
And there is sometimes value in looking at history to understand how we ought to live our faith today. And in that light, belonging to a tradition that was born in positive witness is a great thing.
Our protest witnesses to hope. That is true because there is so much that is negative and destructive in the world. A look at the national and world news on almost any day provides us with more than enough evidence of that.
And coupled with bad news is the conclusion by some that there is therefore no meaning to life, or that goodness is weaker than evil, or even that there is no God. Against that, there’s the positive witness of our faith in God’s promise that sin, injustice, violence, evil and hatred are all temporal things, doomed for ultimate oblivion, while righteousness, peace, justice and love are eternal and will prevail in the final outcome of this world.
This is our hope; this is our faith.
Movements born in positive witness often bring new vigor, renewal and fresh understandings to things that have gone stale, flat or become routine. That was certainly true of the Protestant Reformation.
Philipp Melanchthon was a university professor of Greek, a friend of Luther’s, & an early supporter of & author for the Reformation. A year after this second diet, in 1530, Philipp Melanchthon would pen the Augsburg Confession. That document is not only the foundation for the Lutheran faith to this day but it also had a major influence on the doctrinal statements of the Anglicans and the Methodists.
The point is, the positive witness of the Reformation helped to clarify theological understandings that shape our practice of faith yet today.
So what’s the message for us on this Reformation Sunday?
Simply this: We belong to a movement born 500 years ago in witness to the positive power of faith in Jesus Christ. We continue to have the privilege of making that witness, a protest of positive faith and light, given in a world in turmoil and darkness.
Today, the Catholic Church officially says that both faith and works are necessary for salvation while we Protestants still say only faith is necessary. But then we Protestants hasten to add that faith should demonstrate itself in good works. We make clever statements like, “We are saved by faith alone, but not by the faith that is alone.” So in reality, we both push both.
Luther himself said as much. When he translated the New Testament into German, he wrote a preface to the epistle of Romans. In that, he said:
“Faith is a living and unshakable confidence, a belief in the grace of God that a person would die a thousand deaths for its sake. This kind of confidence in God’s grace … makes us joyful, high-spirited and eager in our relations with God and with all humankind … Hence, the person of faith, without being driven, willingly and gladly seeks to do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of hardships for the sake of the love and glory of the God who has shown humankind such grace” (Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans [Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1977], 7).
In other words, good works were and are an expected fruit of the Christian life; they are simply not the channel for receiving salvation in the first place.
So again, what’s the message for us on this Reformation Sunday? I would say, keep on protesting. Keep on protesting what is wrong! What is sinful! What is unfair! What is an injustice! And we must keep on reforming: ourselves, our lives, the church, our country and the world.
@Rev.Tim Wolbrecht, October, 2017
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 10-22-17” name of the sermon.