Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521
19th century painting by Hermann Wislicenus
From the 2003 movie Luther
From The One Year Christian History, by E. Michael and Sharon Rusten, pages 216-7, Tyndale House Publishers, 2003.
During the early 1500s Europe was in a great state of flux. A revived interest in pre-Christian Greek and Roman culture launched the Renaissance, which celebrated humanism and undermined contemporary Christian culture. Another threat to contemporary Christian culture came from within the church in the form of the outspoken Martin Luther, a professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. He was becoming known for his bold criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and his forthright convictions regarding justification by faith, papal authority, and the sacraments. The Reformation had begun when Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517. The Theses consisted of ninety-five distinct propositions arguing against the supreme power of the pope, the greed within the church, and the abuse of indulgences. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther in January 1521. This move served to fuel public support for Luther rather than to diminish it.
Because of Luther’s great popularity, Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, agreed to hear his arguments at a ‘diet’ (a meeting of the empire parliament) which was scheduled for the spring of 1521 in Worms, Germany. Church representatives wanted Luther arrested and condemned to death as a heretic without a trial. However, Luther was promised that he would be protected and given a lawful trial at the diet.
At 4:00 p.m. on April 17, 1521 (495 years ago today), Luther arrived triumphantly in Worms. It was a dramatic contrast: Luther, a simple monk, standing before the powerful sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire. When he was immediately confronted with a pile of his books and asked whether he acknowledged their authorship, he quietly, responded, “The books are all mine.” They pressed him further, asking whether he would stand by them or recant anything in them. Luther was shocked because he had been promised a hearing of his beliefs, not a demand for recantation. Luther replied:
This touches God and his Word. This affects the salvation of souls. Of this Christ said, ‘He who denies me before men, him will I deny before my Father.’ To say too little or too much would be dangerous. I beg you, give me time to think it over.
After some deliberation Luther was granted a one-day delay, even though they felt he didn’t deserve it.
Martin Luther spent the evening in prayer, carefully preparing his response. At 6:00 p.m. the following day he gave his famous answer:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason, for I trust neither pope nor council alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures I have cited, for my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything since to act against one’s conscience is neither safe nor right. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand, may God help me. Amen.
These famous words reverberated throughout the Reformation, inspiring many others to take their stand as well.
Matthew 10:32-33 — (Jesus said), “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
Luke 12:11-12 — (Jesus said), “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers, and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”
Mark 8:38 — (Jesus said), “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Psalm 118:6 — The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?
O God, in whose one Gospel all are made one, let not your saving work fail in the broken order of Christendom because we have failed to understand your message. Prosper the labor of all churches that bear the name of Christ, and who strive to further righteousness and faith in him. Help us to place the Truth above our conception of it, and joyfully to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit wherever he may choose to dwell in human beings; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Charles Henry Brent, Episcopal bishop of the Philippines (1862-1929)