Martin Luther’s Stand

On April 17, 1521, at the Diet of Worms (an imperial meeting in Worms, Germany) Martin Luther stood before the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, and many high representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. The hall was full of churchmen and civil leaders, governors and nobles, some who supported Luther as a heroic theologian and others who wanted him to burn as a heretic.

Luther must have felt the weight of the whole world upon his shoulders. In fact, he had stood right where he was on the day before and asked for some time to consider how he would answer the lethal question he was being asked, “Will you recant these things you have written and said?” Luther’s life was a stake because he had written and said things that impugned the doctrines and dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. He would have to withdraw his words or face serious consequences.

Four years earlier, Professor Martin Luther published an academic work on the university bulletin board. He wrote his now famous 95 Theses in Latin, which amounted to a professor’s invitation for scholarly dialogue on the practice of indulgences. Nailing this document to the chapel door in Wittenberg was the pivotal moment that set Luther’s trajectory towards the Diet of Worms.

Now, there Luther stood, surrounded by such an illustrious crowd. If he refused to recant, he would be charged as a heretic and burned alive. If he recanted, he feared the wrath of God would come upon him for not standing for divine truth amidst such tyrannical error. However, it does not seem that fear compelled him most. He was convinced by Scripture, and he simply could not knowingly deny what had gripped him so.

In a clear and distinct voice, Martin Luther answered,

“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.”[1]

In God’s providence, Luther did not die that day, nor was he ever burned as a heretic. He was certainly condemned as an enemy of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Edict of Worms (a decree issued soon after the Diet), Charles V offered a reward for Luther’s capture (dead or alive), but Luther remained a champion of biblical Christianity until he died from various ailments and fatigue at 62 years old.

Like Athanasius before him, Martin Luther lived contra mundum (against the world), but he reminds us that the word of God is true even if the whole world is against it. May God raise up many convinced men and women in our own day, and may we be gripped – above all else – by His word.

[1] Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (p. 15). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

If you enjoyed this post, see by article Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and my essay Luther & the “Five Solas” of the Reformation.

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