Today is an important date in the life of Martin Luther. 497 years ago, Luther was appearing for the second day before the Imperial Diet called in the German community of Worms. When one looks at the history of Luther, they find this event marks the end of the first part of his reformation.
Luther began his protest with the 95 theses on October 31, 1517. These were primarily against the practice of indulgences and the doctrine of penance. Certainly, he did plan to begin a reformation leading to a separation from the papacy. But, the theses were translated into German, printed, and distributed, beginning a fire storm in Germany and the surrounding territory.
The more the professor studied, the larger was the gap between his understanding of Scripture and what was being taught by the Pope and Rome. In 1520, Luther published three key treatises, namely, "Freedom of a Christian", "On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church", and "Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation". His writing clearly revealed that Luther now held to justification by faith alone, one of the mantras of the Protestant Reformation.
The papacy had enough of this "German monk", so the pope published a "bull" noting what Rome saw as forty-plus errors in Luther's writings. The document demanded he publicly recant of these errors or face excommunication, an extremely serious matter for sixteenth century Catholics. But, Luther would not yield and, on December 10th of that year, publicly burned the bull. For good measure, he also burned a copy of Rome's "Code of Canon Law". He was officially removed from the church on January 3, 1521, four months before Worms. He was "anathema" to the Roman Church.
Luther was also viewed as a threat to the Holy Roman Empire. He was quite popular, especially in Germany, and the Emperor feared he would cause religious instability in his realm. This newly elected leader, Charles V, summoned Luther to Worms for the Diet, granting him safe conduct. Nevertheless, Luther was fearful, recalling how John Hus had also been promised safe conduct one-hundred years earlier and found that promise not honored! Hus had been taken and, ultimately, burned.
A Diet was simply a meeting of Holy Roman Empire political authorities to discuss key issues facing the empire and their resolutions. The Diet in Worms began in late January of 1521 with Luther arriving on April 16. As he entered the community, he was cheered. On April 17, Luther was called before the Diet for questioning. He expected to be able to present and defend his views. However, the papal representation asked him if he would recant of his errors and his writings. The Wittenberg doctor was caught off-guard.
An advocate of Luther and professor of canon law asked that the titles be read of those works of Luther deemed heretical. Twenty-five of his titles were listed. Luther affirmed these were his works. Asked again to recant, he requested a day to consider the situation and to provide a full answer. The Diet granted his request.
During this period, Luther prayed for several hours and discussed the matter with his friends as well as with others there whom he regarded highly. It is likely he had little sleep that evening!
Late on the afternoon of the 18th, he appeared before the Diet. Once more, he was called on to recant. Luther acknowledged the works were his, but he also noted they were of different types. Some of them were devotional. Some attacked abuses in the church. Lastly, there were some directed at specific individuals. He confessed some of them were harsh and he apologized.
Luther gave his remarks twice, once in German and once in Latin. The papal representative then spoke:
"I ask you, Martin--answer candidly and without horns--do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?"
Luther, then, gave his reply.
"Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen."
The authorities privately discussed arresting Luther on the spot. But, the Emperor refused to duplicate the action taken on Hus. Luther's safe conduct was honored. A month later, on May 26, Charles issued the Edict of Worms, pronouncing Luther an outlaw of the empire. Both church and state wanted him out of the way.
I doubt if Martin Luther would consider his actions on that April 18th to be those of a courageous man. He was fearful of going to Worms, and he spent the night before struggling with what he would say. But, the testimony he leaves with us from this event is his courage and boldness to remain committed to the Word of God. As he said, "my conscience is captive to the Word of God". And, because of that, he would not be moved or recant.
Oh, that you and I might be so committed to God's Word that, even faced with possible arrest and martyrdom, we would stand as did Luther.