Protest is a familiar word in 2017 America. Protests have arisen after incidents involving shootings by law enforcement officials. In the professional football world individual and team protests have been widely covered by the media. At its best a protest seeks to highlight a perceived problem that the protesters would like to see solved. At its worst a protest involves or leads to violence, destruction, and death.
Our church here at Grace falls under the category of "Protestant" churches. That does not mean that we take a stand on one side or another of various social or political issues about which some people may protest. But the title does suggest something to do with "protest." In our case the issue goes back some 500 years and centers in the truth of God's Word.
October 31, 2017, will mark the 500th anniversary of an event that sparked the "Protestant Reformation" in the Christian church. A Catholic monk and priest named Martin Luther had found practices and teachings within his church that did not stem from the Bible but instead conflicted with what the Bible says. He proposed a discussion or debate by nailing a document to the church in Wittenberg, Germany, where he was the regular preacher. The document listed ninety-five statements, or "theses," which were meant to be a starting point for discussion among educated scholars within the church. They blew up into something much bigger.
The issue at hand was the selling of indulgences by the Catholic church to raise funds for a building project in Rome. Martin Luther heard claims that his church members were purchasing freedom from any punishment for their sins, and so he found reason to protest against these indulgences, these documents that came all the way from Rome and from the pope himself. They gave a false idea, he said, that you can buy forgiveness of sins. Luther had learned from his study and teaching of the Bible that sins and their guilt cannot be removed by paying for an indulgence, nor can they be removed by any other attempt or effort on our part. The guilt of sin is just too pervasive.
But Luther's study of the Bible also revealed something that should have been understood all along, for God has clearly taught it in his Word. We call it the Gospel, and it truly is good news. The life and death of God's Son, Jesus Christ, took place as God's own gracious
solution to the horror of sin and its eternal consequences. By faith in Jesus each person can receive the full and free remission of sins. By faith, awakened by God's Spirit through Baptism and the Word, and strengthened through the reception of Christ's body and blood in Holy Communion, God grants mercy and peace as he declares the sinner justified in his eyes. Joy and peace come to the sinner when he is freed from the impossible burden of removing his own guilt, but instead is filled with the faith that God looks on him with favor because of Jesus' perfect life and innocent death.
Martin Luther had been teaching and preaching this beautiful message of life in Jesus before he protested against indulgences. He protested against the church only when he was told to withdraw what he was teaching and writing, even though it expressed the clear teachings of God's Word.
Being a Protestant church does not mean that we will organize to lead protests regarding social or political issues. Being Lutherans does not mean that our work together is centered on producing an upheaval of perceived injustices in our world. It does lead us, however, to protest. We protest first against our own sinful nature that wants to think we can buy or earn God's favor. We protest against our own natural attitude that thinks we should be rewarded for being pretty good people. We protest against the lies of Satan that lead us to doubt God's presence or his goodness when hard times enter our lives. We protest against the desires of our sinful nature that lead us to actions that God declares to be sinful.
And we remain protestant, protesting, separated from any church body that chooses human ideas over the clear teachings of the Bible. We do so because we love the Word of God. We love the God who speaks through it. We want to be clear witnesses to his love to us in Christ and to the truth of all that he says.
Luther described his experience in learning from the Bible as being like heaven's gates opening up before him. Suddenly his mind and heart were free because he could see that God had declared him free from sin and guilt for the sake of Jesus. We stand with him in that same freedom, never protesting against God and what he says, but rejoicing in being joined with him now and forever through Jesus, our Savior.