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.