What happened at Worms in April of 1521 was decisive in the history of the Reformation, yea, in the history of God’s church, the fruit of which reaches to the present and, by God’s grace, will reach to the end of the world. Martin Luther risked his life and dared an appearance before the emperor that we might have the gospel that sets us free, the heavenly word that God kindled to light afresh through the labors of a monk who said, “Here I stand.” This sacred, precious, life-giving deposit has been passed down to us, and we revisit Worms, not as disinterested historians, but as children of the Reformation.
This article intends to relate briefly the history of Luther’s stand,1 but with particular focus on aspects that, although perhaps lesser known, are no less significant in discovering to us not only the heart of the man, but deeper, the power of God who had this man in His grip. As the psalmist says, “Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 34:11).
Emperor Charles V cited Martin Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms within twenty-one days, promising safe conduct. But another emperor, about a hundred years before, had promised the same to Jan Hus, man of God, whose teachings Luther espoused. Hus was arrested and burned alive at the stake. This history Luther well knew. Nevertheless, the doctor headed to the old city many miles away. After an eventful journey, he entered Worms April 16, a hero in the eyes of many, a heretic in the eyes of others. His presence electrified the city to the chagrin of the papists. He was conducted to his lodging.
The next day he was summoned to appear at the diet. So great was the press of the crowd that the escort was compelled to take the back alleys. At last they arrived, and Luther stood before the council. “Never had man appeared before so imposing an assembly,” says one,2 at the head of which was the young emperor himself, whose eyes met those of the monk from Wittenberg. The spokesman on behalf of the emperor, John von Eck, asked him two questions: first, whether these books stacked on a nearby table were his; second, whether he wished to retract them. In a letter written after his departure from Worms, Luther summarizes the matter thus:
I thought His Imperial Majesty would have assembled one or fifty scholars and overcome this monk in a straightforward manner. But nothing else was done there than this: Are these your books? Yes. Do you want to renounce them or not? No. Then go away!3
Well, at this first appearing, Luther answered the first question by affirming the books were his. He asked for time to think and prepare an answer to the second. He had not known in advance how the proceedings were going to go; he wanted to make sure he answered rightly. The request was granted, and Luther was given one day. A letter he wrote shortly after he returned to his lodging tells us the course upon which he was already resolved: “With Christ’s help…I shall not in all eternity recant the least particle.”4
Between his first and final appearing, an event of great moment occurred, overheard and scribbled down by someone in the right place at the right time: Martin Luther prayed to His God and Father at a time that one author says “was to him a little garden of Gethsemane.” 5 “This prayer,” says the same, “explains Luther and the Reformation.” And, “In our opinion, it is one of the most precious documents in all history.” In it, we see a Jacob wrestling with God—“I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (Gen. 32:26); in it, we hear the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man that avails much (James 5:16)—“O almighty and everlasting God, how terrible is this world! Behold, it openeth its mouth to swallow me up, and I have so little trust in thee.” Further on: “O my God, where art thou?… Come, come; I am ready…I am ready to lay down my life for thy truth…. For it is the cause of justice—it is thine.” And finally: “My soul belongs to thee. It shall abide for ever with thee…. Amen…. O God, help me!… Amen.”
And help him God did. When the time was up, Luther arrived at the appointed time for his second appearing. It was April 18. After a long wait in the foyer, the evening drawing on and the candles flickering, he was admitted into the packed hall. The same spokesmen who had addressed him the day before got right down to business, and put the second question to him again: “Do you wish to defend all your acknowledged books, or to retract some?”6
In his answer, Luther distinguished his books into three kinds. In some of them, he said, “I have discussed religious faith and morals simply and evangelically, so that even my enemies themselves are compelled to admit that these are useful, harmless, and clearly worthy to read by Christians.” How should he disavow these! “Another group of my books attacks the papacy and the affairs of the papists as those who both by their doctrines and very wicked examples have laid waste the Christian world with evil.” If he should retract these, it would add further fuel to the evil, and he would open “not only windows but doors to such great godlessness.” As for the third kind, written against individuals, Luther said, “I confess I have been more violent than my religion or profession demands,” but again, “It is not proper for me to retract these works, because by this retraction it would again happen that tyranny and godlessness would, with my patronage, rule and rage among the people of God more violently than ever before.”
He appealed to the example of the Lord: “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong” (John 18:23), and pleaded with the emperor or anyone to “bear witness, expose my errors, overthrowing them by the writings of the prophets and the evangelists. Once I have been taught I shall be quite ready to renounce every error, and I shall be the first to cast my books into the fire.” As for the “dissensions aroused in the world as a result of my teachings…this is the way, the opportunity, and the result of the Word of God, just as He said, ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’” (Matt. 10:34). He concluded by warning the council against condemning God’s Word for the sake of “settling strifes,” for “it is he who takes the wise in their craftiness” (Job 5:13).
The spokesman was not interested in an answer like this. All he wanted to hear was, “revoco.”7 Yes or no, Martin Luther? Do you, or do you not, retract? And then the monk, before emperor, electors, lords, princes, and bishops, a silence filling the hall, breathless anticipation, the eyes of all fixed upon him—then the monk spake those words that reverberated through that assembly, and have reverberated through the hundreds of years since:
Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner…. 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.8
Again an attempt was made to get him to budge, but Luther remained firm. The diet recessed, and he returned to his lodging.
Scripture—that was the refrain that continued to be heard the days following, when various persons and delegations tried to negotiate with him. “Then began the attempt to break Luther down through a committee.”9 But he was resolute: he could only agree to submit his case to the judgment of another, including a council’s, if Scripture would be the standard of judgment and the final authority. The negotiations fell flat. April 26, several days after his second appearing, Luther departed for home, the emperor honoring the promised safe conduct.
This history exemplifies that great Reformation principle— and one that grated upon the ears of Rome during Luther’s time at Worms—of sola Scriptura, of which the Belgic Confession speaks in the seventh article:
Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees, or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all.
Which is to say, God is above all.
Martin Luther stood in the fear of the Lord. Already at his first appearing, we see it. Why did he ask for time to prepare an answer? In his own words: “Because this is a question of faith and the salvation of souls, and because it concerns the divine Word…it would be rash and at the same time dangerous for me to put forth anything without proper consideration.”10 He went on to quote Matthew 10:33, words that stood large before him. Here is a man neither headstrong nor cocksure, but one who feared God. He was confident, but not self-confident. Listen to his prayer; he felt his own weakness, but upon the Lord he relied. At the diet, many and great were the faces and the power they wielded, and what was he? But there was a witness that day (though you would not have seen him with your eyes), someone watching and listening who had more hold on Luther than anyone else: the living God, to whose Word Luther’s conscience was captive. “The fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe” (Prov. 29:25).
God was at work that day. His power brought forth Luther’s “I cannot.” Not, “I will not,” though true enough, but even more significantly, “I cannot,” because God would not let him do otherwise. In the words of Merle d’Aubigne:
Luther, constrained to obey his faith, led by his conscience to death, impelled by noblest necessity, the slave of his belief, and under this slavery still supremely free, like the ship tossed by a violent tempest, and which, to save that which is more precious than itself, runs and is dashed upon the rocks, thus uttered these sublime words, which still thrill our hearts at an interval of three [now five] centuries: thus spoke a monk before the emperor and the mighty ones of the nation; and this feeble and despised man, alone, but relying on the grace of the Most High, appeared greater and mightier than them all. His words contain a power against which all these mighty rulers can do nothing. This is the weakness of God, which is stronger than man. The empire and the church on the one hand, this obscure man on the other, had met. God had brought together these kings and these prelates publicly to confound their wisdom. The battle is lost, and the consequence of this defeat of the great ones of the earth will be felt among every nation and in every age to the end of time.11
What was loss and defeat for “the great ones of the earth” was for the church of God, the cause of truth, the gospel of Christ, victory, the blessed consequence of which has since been so greatly felt, and continues to be felt, even by us.
Soli Deo gloria, “for of him, and through him, and to him, are all things” (Rom. 11:36).
1 For a fuller treatment of this history, see Merle d’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1926. (Also available online at www.gutenberg.org). And, Roland Bainton, Here I Stand. New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950. And, Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther. New York: Viking, 2017. 2 D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, 253. 3 Martin Luther, “Letter 73 to Lucas Cranach,” Luther’s Works, vol. 48 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 201-202. 4 Martin Luther, “Letter 72 to John Cuspinian,” Luther’s Works, vol. 48, p. 200. 5 D’Aubigne, 258. The quotations of the author’s words, and the portions from the prayer are taken from pages 258-260. 6 “Luther at the Diet of Worms,” Luther’s Works, vol. 32, pp. 101ff. The document contains two accounts, one “prepared by the friends of the Reformation,” the other “the report of the papal nuncio Aleander” (103). The quotations that follow are taken from the former. 7 Latin for “I recall” or “I recant.” 8 Regarding the last line there has been debate about both the order of words and whether or not Luther said more than “God help me.” For an analysis, see Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), 309-10. 9 Bainton, Here I Stand, 188. 10 Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 32, 107. 11 D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, 265-266.