With Luther’s ideas in circulation throughout the empire and also rapidly taking root in the hearts of men—the mass of humans that, formed western Christendom—the edifice of the pope, with all that pertained thereto, was tottering on its foundation and seemed already doomed to extinction. The people’s attachment to the Romish superstitions was fast diminishing; and at the same time Luther’s reputation increased day by day. The people in great numbers turned to him as the defender of truth and liberty. The dominion of the priest and monks was being shaken by his word, for the influence of this word was immense. The Rominists were frantic. Even shortly after the posting of the 95 theses, the pope, under pressure of the monks and the theologians, commissioned the legate De Vio to summon Luther before him and to prevail upon him to retract. Should he persist in his obstinacy, and if the legate could not secure his person, he was authorized to outlaw him in every part of Germany, to banish, curse, excommunicate all those who were attached to him. Luther obeyed the summons but did not retract. On Oct. 31 he fled from Augsburg and thereupon appealed from Wittenberg to a future general council. Rome responded by condemning Luther in a papal bull, which was issued on June 15, 1520, and burned by Luther, with the approving presence of students and citizens of Wittenberg, and without opposition to the civil authorities.
In 1520 the newly chosen emperor, Charles V, came to Germany, and to regulate his government in that land, had called a diet to meet in Worms in November. Among the business to be transacted was also the determination of Luther’s case. The papal representative, Alexander, wanted him condemned unheard. He insisted that since Luther had already been condemned by the pope, the sole duty of the diet was to make that condemnation effective by approving it. But Luther’s ruler, Elector Frederick the Wise and other nobles, believed that he should be heard before the diet previous to action by that body. The result was that Luther was summoned to Worms under the protection of an imperial safe-conduct. On April 17, 1521 he appeared before the diet and gave a faithful witness for the truth in Christ Jesus. With a courage that deeply impressed the august body before whom he stood—the emperor and the princes and nobles of the Holy Roman Empire—he defended a cause of which he was rightfully convinced that it was the cause of God.
It is this defense of Luther that forms the subject of this essay.
The chancellor of the archbishop of Treves speaker of the diet pointed Luther to a row of books and then addressed him in the following language: “Martin Luther, his sacred and invincible imperial majesty has cited you before his throne to enquire you to answer two questions: first, Do you acknowledge these books to have been written by you. Secondly, Are you prepared to retract these books and their contents; or do you persist in the opinions you have advanced in them?” The titles of the books having been read to him, Luther acknowledged as his the books that were named. In reply to the second question, he entreated the emperor to allow him time for reflection that he might answer without offending against the word of God. A day was given him, and on the next afternoon he was again before the assembly and delivered in its hearing an address first in German and then in Latin which in part reads as follows:
“Most serene emperor, illustrious princes, gracious Lords, I appear before you this day, in conformity with the order given me yesterday, and by God’s mercies I conjure your majesty and your august highnesses to listen graciously to the defense of a cause which I am convinced is just and true.
“Yesterday two questions were put to me on behalf of his imperial majesty: the first, if I were author of the books whose titles were enumerated; second, if I would retract or defend the doctrine I had taught in them. To the first question I then made answer, and I persevere in that reply.
“As for the second, I have written works on many different subjects. There are some in which I have treated of faith and good works, in a manner at once so pure, so simple, and so scriptural, that even, my adversaries, far from finding anything to censure in them, allow that these works are useful and worthy of being read by all pious men. The papal bull, however violent it may be, acknowledges this. If therefore I were to retract these, what should I do? . . . Wretched man! Among all men alone should abandon truths that friends and enemies approve, and I should oppose what the whole world glories in confessing. ….
“Secondly, I have written books against the papacy, in which I have attacked those who, by their false doctrines, their evil lives, and their scandalous example, afflict the Christian world, and destroy both body and soul. The complaints of all who fear God are confirmatory of this. Is it not evident that the human doctrines and laws of the popes entangle, torment, and vex the consciences of believers; while the crying and the perpetual extortions of Rome swallow up the wealth and the riches of Christendom, and especially of this illustrious nation? ….
“Were I to retract what I have said on this subject, what should I do but lend additional strength to this tyranny, and open the flood gates to a torrent of impiety? ….
“Lastly, I have written books against individuals who desired to defend the Romish tyranny and to destroy the faith. I frankly confess that I may have attacked them with more acrimony than is becoming my ecclesiastical profession. I do not consider myself a saint; but I cannot disavow these writings, for by so doing I should sanction the impiety of my adversaries, and they would seize the opportunity of oppressing the people of God with still greater cruelty.
“Yet I am but a mere man and not God; I shall therefore defend myself as Christ did. ‘If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil,” John 18:23, said He. How much more should I, who am but dust and ashes, and who may so easily go astray, desire every man to state his objections to my doctrine?
“For this reason, by the mercy of God, I conjure yon, most serene emperor, and you, most illustrious princes, and all men of every degree, to prove from the writings of the prophets and the apostles that I have erred. As soon as I am convinced of this, I will retract every error, and be the first to lay hold of my books and throw them into the fire.
“What I have just said plainly shows, I hope, that I have carefully weighed and considered the dangers to which I expose myself; but far from being dismayed, I rejoice to see that the gospel, as in former times, a cause of trouble and dissension. This is the character, this is the destiny of the word of God, I came not to send peace on the earth, but a sword, said Jesus Christ”.
Luther’s address drew forth from the speaker of the diet the following indignant reply: “You have not answered the question put to you. You were not summoned hither to call in question the decisions of councils. You are required to give a clear and precise answer. Will you or will you not, retract?” Luther replied: “Since your most serene majesty and your high mightiness require from me a clear and simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this:
I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning—unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the word of God,
I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me. Amen”.
In the words of one writer, “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 . . . this is the weakness of God which is stronger than man.”
The speaker of the diet had still a word for Luther: “If you do not retract,” said he, “the emperor and the states of the empire will consult what course to adopt against an incorrigible heretic.” The monk replied, “May God be my helper; for I can retract nothing.”
Such then was Luther’s defense. There is so much in it to warm the heart of all such consecrated to the cause that he, by the mercy of God, so zealously championed.
There are the expressions that bespeak the humility of the man. He is but a mere man, dust and ashes, one who may so easily go astray. He is thus ready to receive all men as his teachers. Lie asks but one thing, that it be shown him from the holy Scriptures that he erred. Though he well knows that any such attempt will end in failure, he is very sincere in giving utterance to this sentiment. There burned in the soul of the man a fire—the fire of God—that the adversaries of the truth could not comprehend. Yet he was certainly no lover of contention, one of that class of men, who look upon even theology and religion, as a means of acquiring a worldly reputation. He had desired no quarrel with Rome. It was with so much fear and indecision that he had attacked the indulgence that he was later ashamed of it. So he, himself, confessed. A full year after the posting of his 95 theses, he had actually agreed to keep silence until an enlightened bishop, appointed by the pope, investigated his matter, and pointed out the erroneous articles that he should retract. If they prove to him his error, he will recant. In a letter he wrote at this time to the pope, we come upon statements such as these: “What shall I do, most holy Father? I cannot bear the lightnings of your anger and I know not how to escape them. I am called upon to retract. I would most readily do so, could that lead to the desired result … A recantation would only still more dishonor the church of Rome . . . Most holy father, I declare in the presence of God, and of all His creatures, that I never desired, and that I never shall desire to infringe, either by force or by stratagem, the power of the Roman church or of your holiness. I confess that nothing in heaven or in earth should be preferred above that church, except Jesus Christ alone, the Lord of all.” So he spake at a time when he had not reached the full light. Yet there is no fundamental discrepancy between the man who stands before us in this epistle and the Luther who declares before the imposing assembly at Worms that he cannot submit his faith either to the pope or to the councils. We should notice the closing clause of this missive: “Jesus Christ alone, the Lord of all”. This truth and fact, dwelling, as it did, in Luther’s heart, was the essential cause of the Reformation. All that this letter helps to prove is that Luther desired not tumults and revolutions but that he was thrown In the midst of them by God Himself, Who pushed him forward, carried him away. The Reformation, as concentrated in Luther’s soul, was not a movement representative of a quest for worldly fame. It was not the working of pride but of a living faith. Faith, the love of God and of the Gospel of Christ, was its subjective principle.
Something more must be said about Luther’s declaring that he cannot submit his faith either to the pope or to the councils and that unless they render his conscience bound by the word of God, he cannot and will not retract. The Scriptures, he wants his judges to know, are supreme. Councils and popes can err but not so the Scriptures. They are moreover, all sufficient, as they fully contain the will of God and whatsoever men ought to believe unto salvation. Thus they form the only rule of faith. So let them judge his works by the Scriptures. Let them prove from the Scriptures that he erred and he will retract every error.
The Reformation loved the Scriptures. It emancipated the Scriptures from the reign of dogma and tradition and subjected both to the reign of the Scriptures.
To Luther’s request that his judges prove from the Scriptures that he erred, their only response was, ‘’Retract, retract.” This the Romanists had been screaming in his ears from the day of the posting of 95 theses three years and five months ago now. They could not prove from the Scriptures that he erred, so they simply demanded of him that he retract.
But Luther was firm. He stands immovable like a rock. He will retract nothing. He will yield not the breadth of a hair. To the threat of his judges that they will kill him, if he continues obstinate, his only reply is, ’’May God be my helper; for I can retract nothing”. Obstinacy, they called it. But we know that it was determination born of sanctified conviction. Conviction of what? From where did the man derive his strength? Listen to him pray in the quiet of his retreat between the two sessions of the diet, and you will know. “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 . . . How weak is the flesh and Satan how strong! If it is only in the strength of this world that I must put my trust, all is over. . . . My last hour is come, my condemnation has been pronounced …. O God, O God …. do thou help me against all the wisdom of the world. Do this; Thou shouldest do this …. thou alone; for this is not my work, but thine. I have nothing to do here, nothing to content for with these great ones of the world. I should desire to see my days flow on peaceful and happy. But the cause is thine, and it is a righteous and eternal cause. O Lord help me! . . . . Thou hast chosen me for this work. I know it well . . . Act then, O God; . . . . stand at my side, for the sake of thy beloved Jesus Christ, who is my defense, my shield, and my strong tower.”
The cause is God’s. God choses him for this work. He knows because God tells him. And the Lord is his helper, the source of his strength. Hence, he cannot be moved. For he abides in that place—the secret places of the Most High—where the warriors of God are replenished with the strength that is needful to war His warfare even to the death.
The Romanist will not reason with Luther from the Scriptures. They demand of him simply that he retract. The fruits of his pen fill them with a great dread. This can be explained. The issues that these writings raised were vital. They were issues such as this: Who forgives or remits sin, i.e., frees a man from the condemnation of God and imputes to him the righteousness and the satisfaction of Christ, God or the pope? And, who justifies a man before the bar of his conscience, God through the gospel of Christ as preached by His servants or the pope through some such pronouncement as, “I absolve thee”? Not the pope, answered Luther, but God. The pope (and the priests) had put himself in the place of God to efficaciously bless or curse whomsoever he would and as he chose. And in his fierce anger he had assigned Luther to the place of eternal torment because one of the propositions he refused to retract is that the pope has not this power—the power of dispensing at his pleasure the merits of the Savior. And because men had come to believe that Christ had actually delegated to him this power, they trembled when he threatened. Rather than risk a conflict with the pope, men chose to hearken to his voice, to honor his pronouncements, and to subject themselves to his will; for they feared his curses, as when he cursed it was to them all the same as when God cursed. As long as this belief in the false claims of the pope persisted, his hold on the consciences of men was secure. On the other hand, the destruction of this belief would be certain to result in the breaking of this hold. Now it is precisely at men’s belief in this usurped authority, thus at this very authority, that Luther struck. “The pope’s indulgences,” said he, “cannot take away the smallest sin, as far as regards the guilt or the offence.” (Thesis 76 of the 95 theses). “Every Christian who truly repents of his sins, enjoys an entire remission both of the penalty and of the guilt, without need of indulgences” (Thesis 36).
In these writings of that humble and despised monk, the Romanists had come upon passages also such as this: “The Romans have raised around themselves three walls to protect them against every kind of reformation. Have they been attacked by the temporal power? they have asserted that it has no authority over them, and that the spiritual power was superior to it. Have they been rebuked by the Holy Scriptures? they have replied that no one is able to interpret it except the pope. Have they been threatened with a council? No one, said they, but the pontiff has authority to invoke one.” And then this: “First of all we must expel from every German state those papal legates, with their pretended benefits which they sell us at their weight in gold, and which are downright impositions. They take our money, and for what? to legalize their ill-begotten gains, to absolve from all oaths, to teach us to be wanting in fidelity, to instruct us how to sin, and to lead us direct to hell. Hearest thou this, O pope, not most holy, but most sinful pope? May God from His throne in heaven soon hurl thee from thy throne into the bottomless pit.” And then finally also this: “Now after reading all the subtleties on which these gentry have set up their idol, I know that the papacy is none other than the kingdom of Babylon, and the violence of Nimrod the mighty hunter.”
In those works, which he is asked to retract, Luther breaks down those three walls. He attacks the abuses and the corruptions of the Roman hierarchy and also this hierarchy as such. He commands the pope and all the lesser dignitaries—archbishops and bishops—to renounce their positions and the wealth and worldly glory that goes with them, and become humble elders, pastors and deacons in the churches. In a word, he demands of the hierarchy nothing less than that it destroy itself, lay itself level with the ground.
Need it surprise us then that the pope demanded of the diet that it render his condemnation of Luther effective?