As sons and daughters of the Reformation, we are called Protestants.
Do you know the origin of that name?
While most of us probably readily connect that name with the Reformation of the sixteenth century, there are probably not many of us who are acquainted with the specific historical origin of it. Nevertheless that origin is worth knowing: for it is intimately connected with the very principle of the Reformation.
To understand this we must go back to the early history of the Reformation in Germany.
At the Diet of Worms in 1521—the occasion when Dr. Martin Luther was challenged to give account of his faith and when he ended with the well-known words, “Here I stand; I can do no otherwise, God help me, Amen!”—at that Diet every measure was taken to crush the movement of the Reformation completely. These efforts, however, failed. The Lord took care of His own cause. In spite of the edicts of men and in spite of all the opposition of the prince of darkness, the cause of the Reformation went forward. Many were liberated from the power of Rome and found peace and salvation in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only the laity but also the clergy, not only the poor and the weak, but also princes and mighty men embraced the cause of the Reformation. One of the results of this rapid growth was the fact that at the Diet of Spires, 1526, the power of the opposition had to give in; and it was decided, in effect, that every prince would be free to regulate the matter of religion in his own realm and territory. In other words, a measure of freedom of religion was decreed by that Diet, something which could only be to the benefit of the Reformation.
Matters did not remain thus, however. The second Diet of Spires gathered in 1529. In the interim between the first and the second Diet of Spires the Pope and Charles V had ironed out their differences, and the latter had sworn to devote all his power to root out the Reformation. The result was that the second Diet of Spires in 1529 revoked the decisions of 1526, and thus revoked the slight degree of religious liberty which had been granted at that time. It was decided that in every place in which the edict of Worms; 1521, had gone into operation, no change was to be introduced. Further, in those places where the edict of Worms had already been transgressed and where it was not very well possible to enforce it, there was to be no further spread of the new doctrine of the Reformation. No Roman Catholic might be accepted into the congregations of the Reformation. There was to be no discussion by the Evangelicals concerning the points of difference with regard to the faith. And the authority of the bishops was not to be hindered.
The effect of these decisions of 1529, should they be enforced, would be devastating. The further spread of the cause of the Reformation would be effectually halted. In Roman Catholic territories the doctrine of the Reformation might not be proclaimed. And where there were already churches of the Reformation, no effort might be put forth to make converts or to accept members from the Roman Catholic Church. If these decisions would be enforced, the Reformation would be smothered in its cradle.
Against these decisions of the second Diet of Spires, the Evangelical princes and nobles protested. It is worthy of note that this protest originated not in the church and not with the spiritual leaders of the church, but with the princes and nobles, the political leaders and authorities of that day. It is also worthy of note that this protest was registered by a small minority over against a great and powerful majority, not only a majority of those assembled at the Diet of Spires, but a majority which included the power of the king, the pope, and the emperor.
It is from this protest that our name “Protestant” originated: from that time forward those who adhered to the Reformation were called Protestants.
Because that document of protest is a beautiful, highly spiritual, godly document, which gives expression to the true motivation and the formal principle of the Reformation in a very precise way, it is worth our while, as sons and daughters of the Reformation, to review this protest and to be reminded of the origin of our name. The protest was as follows:
“Dear Lord, Cousins, Uncles, and Friends—
“Having repaired to this Diet at the summons of his majesty, and for the common good of the empire and of Christendom, we have heard and learned that the decisions of the last Diet concerning our holy Christian faith are to be revealed, and that it is proposed to substitute for them certain restrictive and onerous resolutions.
“King Ferdinand and the other imperial commissaries, by affixing their seals to the last recess of Spires, had promised, however, in the name of the emperor, to carry out sincerely and inviolably all that it contained, and to permit nothing that was contrary to it. In like manner also, you and we, electors, princes, prelates, lords, and deputies of the empire, bound ourselves to maintain always and with our whole might every article of that decree.
“We cannot therefore consent to its repeal:
“Firstly, because we believe that his imperial majesty, as well as you and we, is called to maintain firmly what has been unanimously and solemnly resolved.
“Secondly, because it concerns the glory of God and the salvation of our souls, and that in such matters we ought to have regard, above all, to the commandment of God, Who is King of kings and Lord of lords; each of us rendering him account for himself, without caring the least in the world, about majority or minority.
“We form no judgment on that which concerns you, most dear lords; and we are content to pray God daily that he will bring us all to unity of faith, in truth, charity, and holiness, through Jesus Christ, our throne of grace and our only Mediator.
“But in what concerns ourselves, adhesion to your resolution—and let every honest man be judge—we would be acting against our conscience, condemning doctrine that we maintain to be Christian, and pronouncing that it ought to be abolished in our states, if we could do so without trouble.
“This would be to deny our Lord Jesus Christ, to reject his holy word, and thus give him just reason to deny us in turn before his Father as he has threatened.
“What, we ratify this edict! We assert that when Almighty God calls a man to his knowledge, this man nevertheless cannot receive the knowledge of God? Oh, of what deadly backslidings should we not thus become the accomplices, not only among our own subjects, but also among yours.
“For this reason we reject the yoke that is imposed on us. And although it is universally known that in our states the holy sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord is becomingly administered, we cannot adhere to what the edict proposes against the Sacramentarians, seeing that the imperial edict did not speak of them, that they have not been heard, and that we cannot resolve upon such important points before the next council.
“Moreover, the new edict declaring the minister shall preach the gospel, explaining it according to the writings accepted by the holy Christian church, we think that for this regulation to have any value, we should first agree on what is meant by the true and holy church. Now, seeing that there is great diversity of opinion in this respect; that there is no sure doctrine but such as is conformable to the word of God; that the Lord forbids the teaching of any other doctrine; that each text of the holy Scriptures ought to be explained by other and clearer texts; that this holy book is in all things necessary for the Christian, easy of understanding, and calculated to scatter the darkness, we are resolved, with the grace of God, to maintain the pure and exclusive preaching of his only word, such as it is contained in the biblical books of the Old and New Testament, without adding anything thereto that may be contrary to it. This word is the only truth; it is the sure rule of all doctrine and of all life, and can never fail or deceive us. He who builds on this foundation shall stand against all the powers of hell, while all the human vanities that are set up against it shall fall before the face of God.
“For these reasons, most dear lords, uncles, cousins, and friends, we earnestly entreat you to weigh carefully our grievances and our motives. If you do not yield to our request, we PROTEST by these presents, before God, our only Creator, Preserver, Redeemer, and Saviour, and who will one day be our Judge, as well as before all men and all creatures, that we, for us and for our people, neither consent nor adhere in any manner whatsoever to the proposed decree, in anything that is contrary to God, to his holy word, to our right conscience, to the salvation of our souls, and to the last decree of Spires.
“At the same time we are in expectation that his imperial majesty will behave towards us like a Christian prince who loves God above all things; and we declare ourselves ready to pay unto him, as well as unto you, gracious lords, all the affection and obedience that are our just and legitimate duty.”