The substance of this article was preached as a sermon on Wednesday 4th March in Glenageeragh Orange Hall, Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland, at a Gospel Mission organised by LOL 908.
What is Protestantism?
Across Northern Ireland our society is divided between those who are Protestant and those who are Roman Catholic. This division is manifested by where we worship, how we vote,by what school we attend and even where we live. Often the division is revealed by our surnames and sometimes even by our Christian names. The division can be evident through the sports that we play or the sports that we don’t play. There is a host of ways in this rather unique society by which the distinctions between Protestants and Roman Catholics are defined.
Therefore I consider this question today to be the most vital of all questions. What is Protestantism?
Roman Catholics struggle to understand Protestantism. They have one Church. Their Church defines their faith. But they look at Protestants and our numerous Churches and they are bewildered.
But Protestants too struggle to understand who they are and that gives me greater concern. To some Protestantism is a culture. They are proud of their bands, their lodges and demonstrations. But that is as far as their Protestantism goes. There is no faith, no church attendance. It is nothing more than a social club. To others Protestantism is a political idea. They see it in terms of unionism and Britishness. But again there is no faith. No devotion to God.
This is a question, a most important question, the most important question we are facing. Protestantism today is in crisis in Ulster. We are facing times of growing uncertainty. It is almost 100 years since partition and the formation of Northern Ireland, and never has our position within the UK been challenged as it is today. Republicanism has been most successful in winning the propaganda war and in promoting their narrative during the years of conflict, to the detriment of the innocent victims of terrorism.
How do we face these challenges as a people? We must get back to basics and rediscover our identity. This makes the question before us all the more relevant.
Protestantism is not a culture. While a culture has developed out of Protestantism, it is infinitely deeper than a culture. Protestantism is not a nationality or a political ideology. There are sound reasons why Protestantism in Ulster embraced the UK but it is deeper than unionism. Protestantism is not an organisation. There are Protestant organisations which do good work but Protestantism itself cannot be organised. Protestantism is not even a church because it exists across a large swathe of spiritual bodies.
Protestantism rightly understood is a principle. It is a principle which works out from the heart, which has influenced the doctrines of Churches, and which has transformed the course of nations. It is ultimately a principle which has transformed lives and changed the world. In this article I am going to share with some aspects of the principle which is Protestantism. As I do so my prayer is that God will revive the spirit of Protestantism here in Ulster as we prepare to face the challenges of tomorrow.
1: The Religion of the Bible
In 1637 the English Protestant apologist William Chillingworth coined this phrase which has become very famous:
“The Bible, I say the Bible only is the religion of Protestants.”
At its very heart, the kernel and the core of Protestantism is the Word of God. Where Rome depends upon the traditions of the Church, the writings of the Fathers, the dogmas of the Papacy – the Protestant takes the plainness of Scripture as his sole authority. We do this on the authority of God himself.
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” 2nd Timothy 3:16
Therefore all scripture from Genesis to Revelation is inspired, the very breath of God. Therefore our Lord Himself in His retort to Satan said:
“It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4
Everything we need to know about God and about ourselves is found in this book. We learn about a holy God who fashioned this universe in six days and who formed man in His own image, out of the dust of the ground. We are told that the first couple sinned and so brought a dreadful curse upon the human race that we continue to suffer from to this day. As sinners we need to be born again, we need a new beginning through placing our faith in Christ alone. One day all of humanity will stand before God and give an account of our time here on earth. And there is but two places in eternity: Heaven and Hell. Every person who had ever lived will be in one of those two places.
This book is the only guiding light that society requires. The great moral questions of the day are solved when we look into Bible truth. God made man in His own image, male and female. There are only two genders and God has established by nature what these two genders are. God married Adam and Eve as male and female, same sex marriage and same sex relationships were not part of His purpose for humanity. God says thou shalt not kill. When does a human life become a human life? At birth? There is nothing biological to say that a baby is less human at birth than that baby was two minutes before birth. In fact there is no biological point at which we can argue that a baby is human life other than conception. Of course the Bible informs us on this matter:
“Did not he that made me in the womb make him? and did not one fashion us in the womb?” Job 31:15
Abortion is legalised and with it state murder, the slaughter of the innocent. If only our society would be regulated by this book!
Ultimately – we must take our knowledge from this book. Every preacher you listen to must be judged by the book. Because a man might appear to be clever or educated doesn’t mean that he is correct. If he does not speak according to this book he has no light in him. I would expect my elders to challenge me if I fail to preach the Word. I must judged by the court of God’s Word. This is is the only word that counts.
2: The Restoration of Christianity
In 1517 we commemorated the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Roman Catholicism argues that this betrays the weakness of Protestantism. They argue that Protestantism is something new; a rather novel movement that has separated Christians away from the true body of Christ. They claim to be the true Church because they alone can claim apostolic succession.
This is a serious charge which we must respond to. If Roman Catholicism is correct; if Protestantism is something new, then there ought to be a return to Rome. The breaches in the Church opened up at the Reformation 500 years ago need to be restored. This is the premise behind ecumenism. The Pope as one who claims to be the successor of Peter and the sole representative of Christ on earth believes that he has authority over every professing follower of Christ – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. Therefore he sees it as his duty to promote unity among the Churches. But it is a unity aimed at restoring his headship over all every body which claims to be Christian. This is the true purpose of ecumenism.
But – is Protestantism really a new idea? Is the Roman Church the true Church? Is the Pope the successor of Peter and the vicar of Christ on earth?
We must get back to the Bible to find an answer. If the Bible is at the heart of true religion why did the Church take the Bible away from the people?
What happened 500 years ago was not an innovation, it was a Reformation. To Reform is not to fashion something new, it is to reshape and improve something old. The primary drive of the Protestant Reformers was to give the people back the Bible. The Church was afraid of the power of this book. They believed that the common people could not be trusted with Scripture. They were right to be afraid. When the ordinary people read the Bible they discovered that the Church had departed from Scripture. That Popes and Priests, that masses and confessions, that penances and rosaries were not found in Scripture. It was not what the Priest, the Bishop, the Archbishop, the Cardinal or even what the Pope said which counted. It was what the Bible said. And so Protestantism restored Christianity to its roots by giving the people back the Bible.
Let us remember that the struggle to restore the scriptures to the people was a battle, it was one of the greatest battles ever fought. This book is stained with blood. The first man to translate the Bible into English from the original languages was William Tyndale. He was forced to leave England. He lived and worked as an outlaw in Europe sending his precious contraband to his homeland. The church bought up his bibles, burned them in London, but this only gave him money to print more. Eventually he was captured in Belgium, strangled at a stake and burned to death. He sacrificed his life in order that we might have the Bible in the English language.
Protestantism restored Christianity to the true religion and faith of the apostles. This faith can be traced through the ages. Martin Luther was not the first man to preach these doctrines. We find them in the preaching of Jan Huss, the Czech priest, in John Wycliffe, the English scholar, in Peter Waldo of Lyons, the founder of the Waldensians, in the ministry of Augustine of Hippo, the Church Father who influenced the ministry of John Calvin, and in Patrick of Ireland whose ministry was bible based and who was more like the later Protestants, who were yet 1,000 years in the future, than the movement that we recognise as the Church of Rome.
I have no difficulty in charging the Church of Rome with being an imposter into Christianity. That true Christianity is discovered only within the Protestant Reformation.
3: The Grace of the Gospel
The message that lies at the heart of Protestantism is the Gospel truth found in the Bible.
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” Romans 3:23-26
Martin Luther, the German monk, was searching for peace. He did not have peace with God. He was as faithful and as devoted to the church as he could be but still he was plagued with his sin. It was only when he discovered the Bible and especially the writings of Saint Paul that peace flooded his heart and he was born again. The truth that changed him and which lay at the heart of the Reformation was justification through faith in Christ in alone.
He was troubled by his guilt. Then he learned that Christ became guilty of our sin, in order that we might be justified, made righteous before God. He described it as the great exchange; Christ took our sin that we might have His righteousness. And this righteousness is not earned through our good works – it is received by faith in Christ alone.
This is the Gospel. If a minister does not preach justification by faith in Christ alone, the Gospel is not presented.
This is the basic Protestant message which we all must address to our own hearts? Am I justified by faith in Christ alone. It is not my identity with a culture that makes me acceptable with God. The qualification for heaven is not whether we are in the Orange Order or not, it is not about how we vote at elections, it not even about what denomination we affiliate ourselves to. There will not be Free Presbyterians, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists , Pentecostals or Roman Catholics in heaven,wearing these labels. The only qualification will be this – justified by the previous blood of Christ.
Are you prepared. The Corona Virus is coming towards us. A high infection rate in the UK and Ireland with even a 1% mortality will mean tens of thousands of deaths. This is a reminder that death is coming for all of us, somewhere, sometime, someplace.
Only those who are trusting in the merits of Christ are prepared.
4: The Mother of Freedom
Protestantism is a movement which recognised the value of the individual in the sight of God. Luther developed a doctrine from Scripture called the priesthood of all believers. The Reformers would emphasise the importance of the congregation of assembled people gathered together for worship as opposed to the authority of an external structure known as the Church.
This was revolutionary. For centuries Europe was dominated by a Church which lorded over the people and they were expected to slavishly follow every edict from above without questions. This characteristic permeated the state as well as the Church. The kings of Europe believed that they had a divine right to govern their nations as God, just as the Pope governed the Church as God. It is always dangerous when people act and rule as if they are God almighty. The last king of England who believed in this foolish and dangerous notion was James 2nd. It has been said the Prince of Orange commented that the doctrine of the divine right of kings was buried where it belongs – in the bottom of the Boyne.
When William 3rd and Mary took the throne in 1688 Parliament passed the Bill of Rights, which is the first human rights document of the modern era. It guaranteed rule by Parliament which is rule by the people and for the people. Without Protestantism the peoples of the free world would not enjoy democracy. The Orange Institution takes pride in the precious motto “Civil and Religious Liberty”. Protestantism has been to forefront of many great struggles for freedom in world history, from the freeing of the African peoples from slavery to arguing for better conditions for the poor in Victorian England.
Protestants were the original liberals in world history. Liberalism is about equality based on love, a core Christian value. But Satan has taken a good world and twisted it today into meaning anarchy and rebellion. Liberty which takes out the parameters of scripture is rebellion against God and this is what we are seeing today.
The so called liberals of today are abusing the liberty given to them because of Protestantism as an excuse for living as they please. While we resist this trend we do right to emphasise the Protestant principle of freedom without which we would not have our nation today.
100 Years ago, Irish Nationalism was fighting its war of independence against the British. Irish Protestants were viewing events with a sense of alarm. They had come through the Home Crisis in 1912, they had sacrificed the best of their young manhood during the Great War and now they were staring a new intolerant Ireland dominated by aggressive Roman Catholicism with anguish. Therefore Ulster Protestants agitated for partition. Why? To protect our freedoms and liberties. The demise of the southern Protestant community, the closing down of numerous orange lodges in places as far south as Cork was evidence that the founding fathers of Northern Ireland were right to establish this state. When we celebrate 100 years of Northern Ireland one year from now we celebrate Protestant liberty.
5: The Creator of Industry
I am sure you have heard of the phrase, “Protestant work ethic”. It was coined by Max Weber in 1904 and he claimed that Protestantism was the beginning of capitalism. The Protestant Work Ethic is a studied and controversial concept; it is well known not only in theology and history but in sociology and in economics. It is seen as the engine behind the expansion of the British Empire, the remarkable skill and engineering of the Germans and especially of the place that the United States occupies as the wealthiest nation on earth.
Protestantism recognised the importance of the individual. The individual was taught that he was valued with amazing God given abilities. He had a responsibility to use those abilities and realise his full potential because the scriptures teach us to do all to the glory of God. Religion was not just about going to Church it was serving God everyday – on the farm, in the workshop, and on the building site.
Most Protestants in Northern Ireland are plantation Protestants. When our ancestors arrived here 400 years ago Ulster was an impoverished economic wasteland. It had been decimated by years of rebellion against English rule. The plantation was a settlement plan aimed at creating a place of prosperity. Our ancestors came here draining bogs, clearing forests. They struggled with the constant fear of an uprising and there was one in 1641 when 100,000 Protestants were slaughtered. But here they remained. The land is their legacy.
I find it a tragedy of enormous proportions that this place once made prosperous by hard work and graft is now totally dependent upon aid from Westminster. As a society we have forgotten the premise that the only money worth having is that which we work for. Socialism has ruined our people. One of the most obvious symbols of the demise of core principles of Protestantism is the under achievement of our Protestant boys at school, which is well documented.
It all goes to prove that when we forget God and lose sight of our heritage we will suffer in more ways than we realise.
As God said of Israel in the days Hosea:
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6)
6: The Hope for the World
I am absolutely convinced that this great principle of Biblical Protestantism offers the best and only hope for ourselves as individuals, for our nation, for this island of Ireland north and South and for the world.
The great Protestant nations have led the world into freedom and prosperity. Communism as a social and economic experiment has been discredited and has failed. Even China which continues to embrace the authoritarian communist political model has recognised that the capitalist economic model alone is the path to prosperity. And where did they get that idea from? – the great Protestant nations of the world with their emphasis upon individual responsibility. The Islamist nations in the world are seed beds of oppression and intolerance and their evil ideology has brought carnage and destruction wherever it goes.
Therefore I argue that Protestantism alone changes the world for the better. But to understand how it can change the world we must beyond the results of the Reformation to the heart of the Reformation itself. Society can only be transformed when individuals are changed by the power the Gospel; this alone will impact families, churches and businesses.
The periods which brought about the greatest positive social change in our history, were times of Protestant and Gospel revival. The evangelical awakening in the Britain during the 18th Century prevented a French style violent revolution. The 1859 revival in Ulster saw 100,000 souls converted, and brought numerous spiritual and social benefits. We should long for such an awakening in this uncertain age. Such a move of the Spirit of God will transform the situation we find ourselves to in.
What must we do?
We must pray that God will heal our land.
Our Churches must preach the Gospel without compromise.
If you are unconverted, you need to seek God for forgiveness. Being a nominal Protestant will not earn you extra favours on the day of Judgement. You must be a born again Protestant to be a true Protestant.