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The Courage of Martin Luther

The Courage of Martin Luther

In a diet-crazed culture, the Diet of Worms may sound like an uninviting alternative to the South Beach or Atkins Diets. The Diet of Worms, however, had little to do with counting calories. In the Holy Roman Empire, an Imperial diet was an official meeting called by the emperor for the purpose of conducting official business. Soon after Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in November of 1520, he convened his first Imperial diet in the town of Worms, Germany, on January 6, 1521.

Many have the notion that this meeting at Worms lasted no more than a couple of days, adjourning shortly after Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech. The diet, however, lasted nearly five months! As the newly crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V wanted to meet with the electors and princes of the land in order to deal with a list of emerging problems in the empire. One writer states:

“The ensuing deliberations were affected by the growing conflict between Charles V and France, the tensions between the emperor and Pope Leo X, the renewal of the Turkish threat, the Comunero uprisings in Spain, general considerations regarding the governance of those territories bound to Charles through personal fealty, and finally, by the ‘Luther affair’” (The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, volume 4, 301).

In fact, meeting with Luther was not even added to the diet’s agenda until Emperor Charles V’s uncle, Saxon Elector Prince Frederick the Wise, convinced his nephew to make the addition. Like Jan Hus one hundred years earlier, Luther received an Imperial safe-conduct, that is, a royal guarantee that he would not be arrested or harmed upon attending the diet. Many, of course, would have been well aware of the fact that Jan Hus’ safe-conduct at the Council of Constance was rescinded, and that shortly thereafter he was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415. Surely Luther, who was already being associated with Hus’ writings, was prepared to die for the cause of Reformation.

It wasn’t until April 16, 1521, that Luther arrived in Worms. During his journey south from Wittenberg he was able to see firsthand what an impact his writings were making. Indeed, Luther was greeted in towns and villages along the way with shouts of joy and adulation. The day after his arrival, at 4:00 o’clock, Luther was escorted to the front of the diet. Try to imagine the scene:

Before him sat the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500 – 1558), Papal Nuncio Girolamo Aleandro (1480 – 1542), electors and princes of the land, and other ecclesiastical representatives such as Johann von der Ecken, bishop of Trier. In front of Luther was a table which had stacked upon it all of his pamphlets and books. The bishop of Trier then proceeded to ask the Wittenberg University professor two simple questions:

1. Do you, Martin Luther, recognize the books published under your name as your own?
2. Are you prepared to recant what you have written in these books?

Heiko Oberman, in his magisterial work entitled, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, informs us that the “Saxon delegation had taken the precaution of providing Luther – who was, after all, a monk and professor of theology – with an experienced lawyer, his friend and colleague from Wittenberg, Heironymus Schurff, professor of canon and imperial law. Schurff immediately objected to the first question: ‘The titles of the books must be named.’ When this had been done, Luther acknowledged each of the works mentioned as his own.” The second question, however, would not nearly be so easy to answer for Luther. He requested a twenty-four-hour-hour period to think about it. This was granted to Luther rather begrudgingly by the diet.

The following evening, at about 6:00 o’clock, Luther was once again led before the members of the Imperial diet. The crowded hall was certainly buzzing with conversation and speculation as to how Luther would answer. When those assembled quieted down, the question was repeated, “Martin Luther, will you recant?” He responded with a ten-minute speech in German – which he later repeated in Latin – explaining his position. His detractors, however, were not interested in his pleas for reform. They wanted a simple yes or no answer. Luther’s reply, in God’s providence, is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and influential statements made in the history of Western civilization:

“Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed; Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, amen” (quoted in Lewis Spitz, The Protestant Reformation, 84).

The scene that ensued was a picture of chaos. Indeed, immediately after Luther finished his speech, the Emperor rose and declared that he had heard enough. Those assembled responded to Luther with shouts of either joy or disgust. The room was a microcosm of the religious (and political) disunity that increasingly characterized the Holy Roman Empire. As Luther left the ecclesiastical hall it is alleged that Spanish horseman at the street gate cried out, “Into the fire,” while Luther held up a clinched fist over his head and shouted, “I am finished!”

On his way home to Wittenberg, Luther took a slight detour so that he could visit his grandmother. On the night of May 4, Luther and his company were attacked by a band of horsemen. Luther was apprehended. The band of horsemen, however, were not enemies but employees of the Elector of Saxony, namely, Fredrick the Wise. Frederick wanted to “kidnap” Luther and protect him before Charles V’s men captured and killed him. Frederick’s men took Luther to the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, Germany. It was there, over the next several months, that Luther translated the New Testament into the German tongue. During this time most believed Luther was dead. Indeed, the famous artist Albrecht Durer famously wrote, “O God, if Luther is dead, who from now on will proclaim to us the holy Gospel?” (Quoted in Spitz, Reformation, 85).

Durer had nothing to fear. Luther was alive and well. And even though Charles V had issued the Edict of Worms towards the end of the diet (after the electors who supported Luther had already departed), making Luther an outlaw who could be at any time “killed with impunity,” God would give Luther a long and fruitful ministry in Saxony … a ministry that would change the course of history.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Martin Luther was brought to a profound testing point at the diet of Worms. His love for God, the Gospel, and Christ’s Church were what, I believe, motivated Luther to demonstrate such unyielding courage and strength. May our consideration of Luther at Worms encourage us to stand firm in our faith. May it remind us on Reformation Day of the supreme importance of possessing sound doctrine and a sincere faith. And may it cause us to revel in the precious Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news which has transformed – and is transforming – our lives.

- Pastor Jon