Several factors made it prudent for Emperor Charles V  to call the Diet of Worms. Two of them were Rome’s  attempt to quiet Martin Luther and Luther’s response  to these attempts.


On October 31, 1517, ten days shy of his thirty-fourth  birthday, a monk named Martin Luther nailed his  Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. In  them Luther questioned Rome’s view of penance—that  one’s sins were forgiven when one verbally confessed  one’s sins to a priest, carried out the prescribed works  that supposedly showed sorrow for sin, and heard the  priest declare one to be forgiven.

Even more, Luther undermined Rome’s teaching that  buying indulgences was one of those works that showed  sorrow for sin. Indulgences were pieces of paper in  which the pope declared that one’s time in purgatory  was shortened by so many years. These indulgences  could be bought (as if silver and gold could accomplish  something that the blood of the Lamb did not do!),  and the money raised from their sale helped finance the  building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

To this Luther objected. By nailing the Ninety-five  Theses to the church door, he was asking for a willing  volunteer to debate him on the matter. No one accepted  the challenge.

Six months later, Luther represented his monastery at  a conference for members of the Augustinian Convents.  Which topics should be discussed at this conference?  The man planning the conference knew that Luther was  outspoken, and decided to avoid the topics of penance  and indulgences. Certainly the topics of sin, grace, and  free will were neutral; Luther could not stir up trouble  in these areas. Also in this, God directed the thoughts  of a man to accomplish His higher purpose. As Luther  pondered these issues, he saw even more problems with  Rome’s doctrine than he had previously seen. In the  theses of his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther taught that  obedience to God’s law, and any human work, cannot  contribute to man’s righteousness; that free will is a misnomer,  and fallen man always chooses to sin; and that  grace alone, and the work of Christ alone, saves fallen  man.

Increasingly alarmed by Luther’s ideas, Pope Leo X  asked one man after another to reason with Luther. At  the Diet of Augsburg (1518), Cardinal Thomas Cajetan  warned Luther and threatened him with excommunication.  At the Leipzig Disputation (1519), John Eck accused  Luther of being a Hussite, that is, of having a heretical view  of the pope and church. After studying the matter, Luther  decided that John Hus had been wrongly condemned, and  that popes and councils could in fact err.

The first papal bull 

On June 15, 1520, the pope issued a bull, or decree,  condemning Luther’s errors. Papal bulls are always  named after their opening words in Latin. This first bull  directed against Luther was called Exsurge Domine,1 for  it began: “Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause.” In  it Pope Leo X informed the Lord that foxes, wild boars,  and wild beasts were destroying Christ’s vineyard. He  called on Peter to rise and act in defense of the church  that Peter had consecrated by his own blood, as if Peter  and the Lord had both shed their blood to establish the  church! And he called on Paul to rise up in defense of  his own teachings. This Luther, the pope alleged, was  putting aside the proper interpretation of Scripture (that  is, the interpretation that the church gave), and teaching  errors that the church had already condemned when it  condemned John Wycliffe and John Hus.

In this bull Leo itemized forty-one “heretical” teachings  of Martin Luther, including his teachings on penance,  confession to a priest, indulgences, purgatory, the  pope, and good works. Concluding this list, the pope  declared,

No one of sound mind is ignorant how destructive,  pernicious, scandalous, and seductive to pious and  simple minds these various errors are, how opposed  they are to all charity and reverence for the holy Roman  Church who is the mother of all the faithful and teacher of the faith; how destructive they are of the vigor of  ecclesiastical discipline, namely, obedience. This virtue  is the font and origin of all virtues and without it anyone  is readily convicted of being unfaithful.

The pope assured his faithful that he has “held a  careful inquiry, scrutiny, discussion, strict examination  and mature deliberation” of these matters, and found  the teachings to be “against the doctrine and tradition  of the Catholic Church, and against the true interpretation  of the sacred Scriptures received from the church.”  Therefore, “by the authority of the almighty God, the  blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority,  we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each  of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous,  false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple  minds, and against Catholic truth.”

The bull proceeded to threaten with excommunication  any who would teach these things, to condemn and  reject all writings and sermons of Martin Luther, and to  pronounce a penalty on any who would “read, assert,  preach, praise, print, publish, or defend” these writings.  The pope then informed God of all the ways in which he  had taken care of Luther, and of Luther’s refusal to listen:  mind you, he even appealed to a council to address  the matter! A true heretic he was; may God have mercy  on his soul! But he must stop preaching and must stop  disturbing “the peace, unity, and truth of the church for  which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father.”

The bull was dated June 15, 1520—centuries before  the era of instant communication. The bull needed to  be translated, thousands of copies printed, and men had  to distribute it throughout the papal realm, especially  Germany. In September John Eck made the rounds of  Luther’s native country, bringing copies of the bull. Eck  was well received in some places, and the people cooperated.  In other cities, however, the people tore up the  bull or threw it into the water, and accosted Eck. At  least two universities, Erfurt and Wittenberg, refused  to publish the bull. Such defiance the papacy had not  faced in many years.

Luther’s response was vintage Luther: he wrote  “Against the Bull of Antichrist,” called the pope a heretic,  and again called for a general council. And on  December 10, at a public burning of Romish books at  Wittenberg, he burned the papal bull. Afterward he  wrote another treatise, “Why the Books of the Pope and  his Disciples were burned by Dr. Martin Luther.”

The second papal bull 

Pope Leo had no incentive now not to carry out his threat  of excommunication. On January 3, 1521, he published  the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem.2 With “grievous  sorrow and complexity,” he admitted that his previous  bull did not have the desired effect, but that Luther  persisted in his wicked way. To honor the office of Peter,  Leo declared Luther and his followers excommunicated,  and branded them with the title “Lutherans,” a term by  which they are known yet today. “On all these,” said the  pope, “we decree the sentences of excommunication, of  anathema, of our perpetual condemnation and interdict;  of privation of dignities, honors, and property on them  and their descendants, and of declared unfitness for  such possessions; of the confiscation of their goods  and of the crime of treason; and these and the other  sentences, censures and punishments which are inflicted  by canon law on heretics and are set out in our aforesaid  missive, we decree to have fallen on all these men to  their damnation.” But there was more: the towns and  territories that these men visited or lived in were placed  under the interdict! No faithful Christian was ever to  visit those towns; and the holy sacraments were not to  be administered in them!

In several ways the difference between Rome’s excommunication  and the Reformed and biblical practice  of Christian discipline becomes apparent. First, biblical  excommunication declares one person to be outside the  kingdom of heaven; this bull declared anyone who followed  Luther to be. Second, biblical excommunication  reminds the impenitent that in the way of repentance he  or she can be again received as a member of the church;  this bull lacked any such notice. Third, biblical excommunication  says nothing about earthly consequences,  about confiscation of goods or other civil penalties; this  bull mentioned those. Finally, biblical excommunication  says nothing about the interdict, about where the  means of grace may or may not be administered; this  bull did. Why would the church withhold the means of  grace from other faithful? The answer is that Rome was  putting pressure on the people around Luther, to try to  convince Luther to recant or to destroy him with their  own hands.

How harsh and authoritarian this bull was! And  if anyone were to write or act contrary to it, “let him  know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and  of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul.” Thus was Luther  excommunicated.

So why the Diet of Worms? 

The diet was not merely a conference between Luther

and the pope, or between Luther’s followers and the  pope’s supporters. Neither pope nor Luther saw the  need for such; the lines had been clearly drawn. The  pope’s representative at the Diet of Worms even insisted  that the diet itself was not necessary; the only thing  necessary was that the emperor enforce the pope’s word  of excommunication.

But Luther’s excommunication had deepened the  growing chasm in Germany, which was a part of the  Holy Roman Empire. The empire was threatened from  without by the Muslims, who were pressing in from the  east, but also threatened from within by religious disunity.  So Emperor Charles V, himself sympathetic to  Rome, called the diet, with the goal of restoring unity  in the empire. Would he enforce Luther’s excommunication,  as the pope asked him to do? At first Charles  seemed so inclined, but his political advisors suggested  against it: Elector Frederick had helped Charles V be  elected emperor in 1519, and Frederick defended Luther.

In the end, Charles declared against Luther in the  Edict of Worms: “We forbid anyone from this time forward  to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive,  defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther.” In  this way, he ratified the pope’s bulls. In the eyes of both  church and state, Luther was a heretic, an infidel, an  excommunicate, and a traitor.

But above emperors and kings is the Lord of lords  and King of kings, whom they are to kiss (Ps. 2). And  above popes and all church rulers sits the Head of the  Church, to whom all answer. Christ’s heavenly verdict  is different from the pope’s and the emperor’s. As Luther  himself could testify, it was the verdict pronounced  on all who honor the Word of God above all: “Well  done, thou good and faithful servant.”

1 This bull can be found online at https://www.papalencyclicals. net/leo10/l10exdom.htm.
2 This bull can be found online at https://www.papalencyclicals. net/leo10/l10decet.htm. The title is comprised of the first three
words of the decree: “It pleases the Roman Pontiff.”