Lesson 11—Protest of Princes

Lesson 11—Protest of Princes

One of the noblest testimonies ever uttered for the Reformation, was the Protest offered by the Christian princes of Germany at the Diet of Spires in 1529. The courage, faith, and firmness of those men of God, gained for succeeding ages liberty of thought and of conscience. Their Protest gave to the reformed church the name of Protestant; its principles are the very essence of Protestantism.

A dark and threatening day had come for the Reformation. Notwithstanding the edict of Worms, declaring Luther to be an outlaw, and forbidding the teaching or belief of his doctrines, religious toleration had thus far prevailed in the empire. God’s providence had held in check the forces that opposed the truth. Charles V. was bent on crushing the Reformation, but often as he raised his hand to strike, he had been forced to turn aside the blow. Again and again the immediate destruction of all who dared to oppose themselves to Rome appeared inevitable; but at the critical moment the armies of the Turk appeared on the eastern frontier, or the king of France, or even the pope himself, jealous of the increasing greatness of the emperor, made war upon him; and thus, amid the strife and tumult of nations, the Reformation had been left to strengthen and extend.

At last, however, the papal sovereigns had stifled their feuds, that they might make common cause against the reformers. The Diet of Spires in 1526 had given each State full liberty in matters of religion until the meeting of a general council; but no sooner had the dangers passed which secured this concession, than the emperor summoned a second Diet to convene at Spires in 1529 for the purpose of crushing heresy. The princes were to be induced, by peaceable means if possible, to side against the Reformation; but if these failed, Charles was prepared to resort to the sword.

The papists were exultant. They appeared at Spires in great numbers, and openly manifested their hostility toward the reformers and all who favored them. Said Melancthon, “We are the execration and the sweepings of the earth; but Christ will look down on his poor people, and will preserve them.” The evangelical princes in attendance at the Diet were forbidden even to have the gospel preached in their dwellings. But the people of Spires thirsted for the Word of God, and, notwithstanding the prohibition, thousands flocked to the services held in the chapel of the Elector of Saxony.

This hastened the crisis. And imperial message announced to the Diet that as the resolution granting liberty of conscience had given rise to great disorders, the emperor required that it be annulled. This arbitrary act excited the indignation and alarm of the evangelical Christians. Said one, “Christ has again fallen into the hands of Caiaphas and Pilate.” The Romanists became more violent. A bigoted papist declared, “The Turks are better than the Lutherans; for the Turks observe fast-days, and the Lutherans violate them. If we must choose between the Holy Scriptures of God and the old errors of the church, we should reject the former.” Said Melancthon, “Every day, in full assembly, Faber casts some new stone against the Gospellers.”

Religious toleration had been legally established, and the evangelical States were resolved to oppose the infringement of their rights. Luther, being still under the ban imposed by the edict of Worms, was not permitted to be present at Spires; but his place was supplied by his co-laborers and the princes whom God had raised up to defend his cause in this emergency. The noble Frederick of Saxony, Luther’s former protector, had been removed by death; but Duke John, his brother and successor, had joyfully welcomed the Reformation, and while a friend of peace, he displayed great energy and courage in all matters relating to the interests of the faith.

The priests demanded that the States which had accepted the Reformation submit implicitly to Romish jurisdiction. The reformers, on the other hand, claimed the liberty which had previously been granted. They could not consent that Rome should again bring under her control those States that had with so great joy received the Word of God.

As a compromise it was finally proposed that where the Reformation had not become established, the edict of Worms should be rigorously enforced; and that in the evangelical States, where there would be danger of revolt, no new reform should be introduced, there should be no preaching upon disputed points, the celebration of the mass should not be opposed, and no Roman Catholic should be permitted to embrace Lutheranism. This measure passed the Diet, to the great satisfaction of the popish priests and prelates.

If this edict were enforced, the Reformation could neither be extended where as yet it had not reached, nor be established on a firm foundation where it already existed. Liberty of speech would be prohibited. No conversions would be allowed. And to these restrictions and prohibitions the friends of the Reformation were required at once to submit. The hopes of the world seemed about to be extinguished. The re-establishment of the papal worship would inevitably cause a revival of the ancient abuses; and an occasion would readily be found for completing the destruction of a work that had already been shaken by fanaticism and dissension.

As the evangelical party met for consultation, one looked to another in blank dismay. From one to another passed the inquiry, “What is to be done?” Mighty issues for the world were at stake. “Should the chiefs of the Reformation submit, and accept the edict? How easily might the reformers at this crisis, which was truly a tremendous one, have argued themselves into a wrong course! How many plausible pretexts and fair reasons might they have found for submission! The Lutheran princes were guaranteed the free exercise of their religion. The same boon was extended to all those of their subjects who, prior to the passing of the measure, had embraced the reformed views. Ought not this to content them? How many perils would submission avoid! On what unknown hazards and conflicts would opposition launch them! Who knows what opportunities the future may bring? Let us embrace peace; let us seize the olive-branch Rome holds out, and close the wounds of Germany. With arguments like these might the reformers have justified their adoption of a course which would have assuredly issued in no long time in the overthrow of their cause.

“Happily they looked at the principle on which this arrangement was based, and they acted in faith. What was that principle?—It was the right of Rome to coerce conscience and forbid free inquiry. But were not themselves and their Protestant subjects to enjoy religious freedom?—Yes, as a favor, specially stipulated for in the arrangement, but not as a right. As to all outside that arrangement, the great principle of authority was to rule; conscience was out of court, Rome was infallible judge, and must be obeyed. The acceptance of the proposed arrangement would have been a virtual admission that religious liberty ought to be confined to reformed Saxony; and as to all the rest of Christendom, free inquiry and the profession of the reformed faith were crimes, and must be visited with the dungeon and the stake. Could they consent to localize religious liberty? to have it proclaimed that the Reformation had made its last convert, had subjugated its last acre? and that wherever Rome bore sway at this hour, there her dominion was to be perpetuated? Could the reformers have pleaded that they were innocent of the blood of those hundreds and thousands who, in pursuance of this arrangement, would have to yield up their lives in popish lands? This would have been to betray at that supreme hour, the cause of the gospel, and the liberties of Christendom.” Rather would they sacrifice their dominions, their titles, and their own lives.

“Let us reject this decree,” said the princes. “In matters of conscience the majority has no power.” The deputies declared that Germany was indebted to the decree of toleration for the peace which she enjoyed, and that its abolition would fill the empire with troubles and divisions. “The Diet is incompetent,” said they, “to do more than preserve religious liberty until a council meets.” To protect liberty of conscience is the duty of the State, and this is the limit of its authority in matters of religion. Every secular government that attempts to regulate or enforce religious observances by civil authority is sacrificing the very principle for which the evangelical Christians so nobly struggled.

The papists determined to put down what they termed daring obstinacy. They began by endeavoring to cause divisions among the supporters of the Reformation, and to intimidate all who had not openly declared in its favor. The representatives of the free cities were at last summoned before the Diet, and required to declare whether they would accede to the terms of the proposition. They pleaded for delay, but in vain. When brought to the test, nearly one-half their number sided with the reformers. Those who thus refused to sacrifice liberty of conscience and the right of individual judgment well knew that their position marked them for future criticism, condemnation, and persecution. Said one of the delegates, “We must either deny the Word of God or—be burned.”

King Ferdinand, the emperor’s representative at the Diet, saw that the decree would cause serious divisions unless the princes could be induced to accept and sustain it. He therefore tried the art of persuasion, well knowing that to employ force with such men would only render them the more determined. He begged them to accept the decree, assuring them that such an act would be highly gratifying to the emperor. But these faithful men acknowledged an authority above that of earthly rulers, and they answered calmly, “We will obey the emperor in everything that may contribute to maintain peace and the honor of God.”

In the presence of the Diet, the king at last announced that the decree was about to be published as an imperial edict, and that the only course remaining for the elector and his friends was to submit to the majority. Having thus spoken, he withdrew from the assembly, giving the reformers no opportunity for deliberation or reply. In vain they sent messengers entreating him to return. To their remonstrance’s he answered only, “It is a settled affair; submission is all that remains.”

The imperial party were convinced that the Christian princes would adhere to the Holy Scriptures as superior to human doctrines and requirements; and they knew that wherever this principle was accepted, the papacy would eventually be overthrown. But, like thousands since their time, looking only “at the things which are seen,” they flattered themselves that the cause of the emperor and the pope was strong, and that of the reformers weak. Had the reformers depended upon human aid alone, they would have been as powerless as the papists supposed. But though weak in numbers, and at variance with Rome, they had their strength. They appealed from the decision of the Diet to the Scriptures of truth, and from the emperor of Germany to the King of Heaven and earth.  

As Ferdinand had refused to regard their conscientious convictions, the princes decided not to heed his absence, but to bring their Protest before the national council without delay. A solemn declaration was therefore drawn up, and presented to the Diet:

“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 our people, neither consent nor adhere in any manner whatever to the proposed decree in anything that is contrary to God, to his Word, to our right conscience, or to the salvation of our souls…. We cannot assert that when Almighty God calls a man to his knowledge, he dare not embrace that divine knowledge…. There is no true doctrine but that which conforms to the Word of God. The Lord forbids the teaching of any other faith. The Holy Scriptures, with one text explained by other and plainer texts, are, in all things necessary for the Christian, easy to be understood, and adapted to enlighten. We are therefore resolved by divine grace to maintain the pure preaching of God’s only Word, as it is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, without anything added thereto. This word is the only truth. It is the sure rule of all doctrine and life, and can never fail or deceive us. He who builds on this foundation shall stand against all the powers of hell, whilst all the vanities that are set up against it shall fall before the face of God.” “We therefore reject the yoke that is imposed upon us.” “At the same time we are in expectation that his imperial majesty will behave toward 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.”

A deep impression was made upon the Diet. The majority were filled with amazement and alarm at the boldness of the protesters. The future appeared to them stormy and uncertain. Dissension, strife, and bloodshed seemed inevitable. But the reformers, assured of the justice of their cause, and relying upon the arm of Omnipotence, were full of courage and firmness.

The Protest denied the right of civil rulers to legislate in matters between the soul and God, and declared with prophets and apostles, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” It rejected also the arbitrary power of the church, and set forth the unerring principle that all human teaching should be in subjection to the oracles of God. The protesters had thrown off the yoke of man’s supremacy, and had exalted Christ as supreme in the church, and his Word in the pulpit. The power of conscience was set above the State, and the authority of the Holy Scriptures above the visible church. The crown of Christ was uplifted above the pope’s tiara and the emperor’s diadem. The protesters had moreover affirmed their right to freely utter their convictions of truth. They would not only believe and obey, but teach what the Word of God presents, and they denied the right of priest or magistrate to interfere. The Protest of Spires was a solemn witness against religious intolerance, and an assertion of the right of all men to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences.

The declaration had been made. It was written in the memory of thousands, and registered in the books of Heaven, where no effort of man could erase it. All evangelical Germany adopted the Protest as the expression of its faith. Everywhere men beheld in this declaration the promise of a new and better era. Said one of the princes to the Protestants of Spires, “May the Almighty, who has given you grace to confess energetically, freely, and fearlessly; preserve you in that Christian firmness until the day of eternity.”

Had the Reformation, after attaining a degree of success, consented to temporize to secure favor with the world, it would have been untrue to God and to itself, and would thus have insured its own destruction. The experience of those noble reformers contains a lesson for all succeeding ages. Satan’s manner of working against God and his Word has not changed; he is still as much opposed to the Scriptures being made the guide of life as in the sixteenth century. In our time there is a wide departure from their doctrines and precepts, and there is need of a return to the great Protestant principle,—the Bible, and the Bible only, as the rule of faith and duty. Satan is still working through every means which he can control to destroy religious liberty. The antichristian power which the protesters of Spires rejected, is now with renewed vigor seeking to re-establish its lost supremacy. The same unswerving adherence to the Word of God manifested at that crisis of the Reformation, is the only hope of reform today.

There appeared tokens of danger to the Protestants. There were tokens, also, that the divine hand was stretched out to protect the faithful. It was about this time that Melancthon hurried his friend Grynaeus through the streets of Spires to the Rhine, and urged him to cross the river without delay. Grynaeus, in astonishment, desired to know the reason for this sudden flight. Said Melancthon, “An old man of grave and solemn aspect, but who is unknown to me, appeared before me, and said, ‘In a minute the officers of justice will be sent by Ferdinand to arrest Grynaeus.’” On the banks of the Rhine, Melancthon waited until the waters of that stream interposed between his beloved friend and those who sought his life. When he saw him on the other side at last, he said, “He is torn from the cruel jaws of those who thirst for innocent blood.”

Grynaeus had been on intimate terms with a leading papist doctor; but, having been shocked at one of his sermons, he went to him, and entreated that he would no longer war against the truth. The papist concealed his anger, but immediately repaired to the king, and obtained from him authority to arrest the protester. When Melancthon returned to his house, he was informed that after his departure officers in pursuit of Grynaeus had searched it from top to bottom. He ever believed that the Lord had saved his friend by sending a holy angel to give him warning.

The Reformation was to be brought into greater prominence before the mighty ones of the earth. The evangelical princes had been denied a hearing by King Ferdinand; but they were to be granted an opportunity to present their cause in the presence of the emperor and the assembled dignitaries of Church and State. To quiet the dissensions which disturbed the empire, Charles V., in the year following the Protest of Spires, convoked a Diet at Augsburg, over which he announced his intention to preside in person. Thither the Protestant leaders were summoned.

Great dangers threatened the Reformation; but its advocates still trusted their cause with God, and pledged themselves to be firm to the gospel. The Elector of Saxony was urged by his councillors not to appear at the Diet. The emperor, they said, required the attendance of the princes in order to draw them into a snare. “Was it not risking everything to shut oneself up within the walls of a city with a powerful enemy?” But others nobly declared. “Let the princes only comport themselves with courage, and God’s cause is saved.” “Our God is faithful; he will not abandon us,” said Luther. The elector set out, with his retinue, for Augsburg. All were acquainted with the dangers that menaced him, and many went forward with gloomy countenance and troubled heart. But Luther—who accompanied them as far as Coburg—revived their sinking faith by singing the hymn, written on that journey,—“A strong tower is our God.” Many an anxious foreboding was banished, many a heavy heart lightened, at the sound of the inspiring strains.

The reformed princes had determined upon having a statement of their views in systematic form, with the evidence from the Scriptures, to present before the Diet; and the task of its preparation was committed to Luther, Melancthon, and their associates. This Confession was accepted by the Protestants as an exposition of their faith, and they assembled to affix their names to the important document. It was a solemn and trying time. The reformers were solicitous that their cause should not be confounded with political questions; they felt that the Reformation should exercise no other influence than that which proceeds from the Word of God. As the Christian princes advanced to sign the Confession, Melancthon interposed, saying, “It is for the theologians and ministers to propose these things, while the authority of the mighty ones of earth is to be reserved for other matters.” “God forbid,” replied John of Saxony, “that you should exclude me. I am resolved to do my duty, without being troubled about my crown. I desire to confess the Lord. My electoral hat and robes are not so precious to me as the cross of Jesus Christ.” Having thus spoken he wrote down his name. Said another of the princes as he took the pen, “If the honor of my Lord Jesus Christ requires it, I am ready to leave my goods and life behind me.” “Rather would I renounce my subjects and my States, rather would I quit the country of my fathers, staff in hand,” he continued, “than to receive any other doctrine than is contained in this Confession.” Such was the faith and daring of those men of God.

The appointed time came to appear before the emperor. Charles V., seated upon his throne, surrounded by the electors and the princes, gave audience to the Protestant reformers. The confession of their faith was read. In that august assembly the truths of the gospel were clearly set forth, and the errors of the papal church were pointed out. Well has that day been pronounced “the greatest day of the Reformation, and one of the most glorious in the history of Christianity and of the world.” {GC88 207.1}

But a few years had passed since the monk of Wittenberg stood alone at Worms before the national council. Now in his stead were the noblest and most powerful princes of the empire. Luther had been forbidden to appear at Augsburg, but he had been present by his words and prayers. “I thrill with joy,” he wrote, “that I have lived until this hour, in which Christ has been publicly exalted by such illustrious confessors, and in so glorious an assembly. Herein is fulfilled what the Scripture saith, ‘I will declare thy testimony in the presence of kings.’”

In the days of Paul, the gospel for which he was imprisoned was thus brought before the princes and nobles of the imperial city. So on this occasion, “that which the emperor had forbidden to be preached from the pulpit, was proclaimed in the palace; what many had regarded as unfit even for servants to listen to, was heard with wonder by the masters and lords of the empire. Kings and great men were the auditory, crowned princes were the preachers, and the sermon was the royal truth of God.” “Since the apostolic age,” says a writer,“there has never been a greater work, or a more magnificent confession of Jesus Christ.”

“All that the Lutherans have said is true, and we cannot deny it,” declared a papist bishop. “Can you by sound reasons refute the Confession made by the elector and his allies?” asked another, of Doctor Eck. “Not with the writings of the apostles and prophets,” was the reply; “but with the Fathers and councils I can.” “I understand, then,” responded the questioner, “that the Lutherans are entrenched in the Scriptures, and we are only outside.” Some of the princes of Germany were won to the reformed faith. The emperor himself declared that the Protestant articles were but the truth. The Confession was translated into many languages, and circulated through all Europe, and it has been accepted by millions in succeeding generations as the expression of their faith.

God’s faithful servants were not toiling alone. While “principalities and powers and wicked spirits in high places” were leagued against them, the Lord did not forsake his people. Could their eyes have been opened, they would have seen as marked evidence of divine presence and aid as was granted to a prophet of old. When Elisha’s servant pointed his master to the hostile army surrounding them, and cutting off all opportunity for escape, the prophet prayed, “Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.” [2 Kings 6:17.] And, lo, the mountain was filled with chariots and horses of fire, the army of Heaven stationed to protect the man of God. Thus did angels guard the workers in the cause of the Reformation.

One of the principles most firmly maintained by Luther was that there should be no resort to secular power in support of the Reformation, and no appeal to arms for its defense. He rejoiced that the gospel was confessed by princes of the empire; but when they proposed to unite in a defensive league, he declared that “the doctrine of the gospel should be defended by God alone. The less men meddle in the work, the more striking would be God’s intervention in its behalf. All the political precautions suggested were, in his view, attributable to unworthy fear and sinful mistrust.”

When powerful foes were uniting to overthrow the reformed faith, and thousands of swords seemed about to be unsheathed against it, Luther wrote: “Satan is raging; ungodly priests take counsel together, and we are threatened with war. Exhort the people to contend earnestly before the throne of the Lord, by faith and prayer, that our adversaries, being overcome by the Spirit of God, may be constrained to peace. The most urgent of our wants—the very first thing we have to do, is to pray; let the people know that they are at this hour exposed to the edge of the sword and the rage of the devil; let them pray.”  

Again, at a later date, referring to the league contemplated by the reformed princes, he declared that the only weapon employed in this warfare should be “the sword of the Spirit.” He wrote to the Elector of Saxony: “We cannot in our conscience approve of the proposed alliance. Our Lord Christ is mighty enough, and can well find ways and means to rescue us from danger, and bring the thoughts of the ungodly princes to nothing…. Christ is only trying us whether we are willing to obey his word or no, and whether we hold it for certain truth or not. We would rather die ten times over than that the gospel should be a cause of blood or hurt by any act of ours. Let us rather patiently suffer, and, as the psalmist says, be accounted as sheep for the slaughter; and instead of avenging or defending ourselves, leave room for God’s wrath.” “The cross of Christ must be borne. Let your highness be without fear. We shall do more by our prayers than all our enemies by their boastings. Only let not your hands be stained with the blood of your brethren. If the emperor requires us to be given up to his tribunals, we are ready to appear. You cannot defend the faith; each one should believe at his own risk and peril.”

From the secret place of prayer came the power that shook the world in the Great Reformation. There, with holy calmness, the servants of the Lord set their feet upon the rock of his promises. During the struggle at Augsburg, Luther did not fail to devote three hours each day to prayer; and these were taken from that portion of the day most favorable to study. In the privacy of his chamber he was heard to pour out his soul before God in words full of adoration, fear, and hope, as if speaking to a friend. “I know that thou art our Father and our God,” he said, “and that thou wilt scatter the persecutors of thy children; for thou art thyself endangered with us. All this matter is thine, and it is only by thy constraint that we have put our hands to it. Defend us, then, O Father!” To Melancthon, who was crushed under the burden of anxiety and fear, he wrote: “Grace and peace in Christ! In Christ, I say, and not in the world, Amen! I hate with exceeding hatred those extreme cares which consume you. If the cause is unjust, abandon it; if the cause is just, why should we belie the promises of Him who commands us to sleep without fear?” “Christ will not be wanting to the work of justice and truth. He lives, he reigns; what fear, then, can we have?”  

God did listen to the cries of his servants. He gave to princes and ministers grace and courage to maintain the truth against the rulers of the darkness of this world. Saith the Lord, “Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner-store, elect, precious, and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded.” [1 Peter 2:6.] The Protestant reformers had built on Christ, and the gates of hell could not prevail against them.