The Diet of Worms was an imperial assembly of the  Holy Roman Empire convoked by Emperor Charles V.  It was held in the city of Worms located not far from  Heidelberg. An imperial ‘diet’ was a deliberative  assembly of the whole empire. This diet was conducted  from January 28 to May 25 of 1521, with Emperor  Charles V presiding. Other imperial diets took place at  Worms in different years (829, 926, 1076, 1122, 1495,  and 1545), but the diet in 1521 is the best known.

In that day, the city of Worms had a population of  about 7,000. It is estimated that twice that number of visitors  filled the city from the first of the year. Summoned  by the emperor Charles V, to this city came churchmen  from all over Europe including faraway Rome, political  rulers high and low from all regions of Germany, and  Martin Luther with a large, wildly supportive following.

The diet was first and foremost a political gathering  called by the new Emperor Charles V. Charles was  born in 1500 in present-day Belgium and spent much of  his early life in the Lowlands. Through various alliances  and marriages of his grandparents and parents, by  age 16 he was the ruler in such varied places as Spain,  Austria, and the Lowlands. Three years later, in June  1519, he was selected to be ruler over the German provinces  and given the title “Holy Roman Emperor.”

How did this come about? The area of Germany  that still considered itself “the Empire” was composed  of many independent provinces. Within these provinces  were seven electors, three of whom were high church  officials and four who were rulers in their provinces.  When their previous emperor (Maximilian I, grandfather  of Charles) died in January of 1519, the electors looked  about for a replacement. The three leading candidates  were Frederick the Wise, one of the prominent electors,  Francis I, King of France, and Charles. Due largely to  Frederick’s influence, the electors chose Charles. He was  19 years old. On the one hand, he was well schooled  in the business of ruling because of his upbringing in a  royal family. On the other hand, he was unfamiliar with  the political landscape of the German provinces that still  called themselves collectively the Holy Roman Empire.

The diet, therefore, was necessary for Charles to set  his political house in order. He wished to meet with the  various rulers and begin charting the course for his domain.  He faced significant issues. To begin, the Turks  were pressing on the eastern borders of the empire, and  he wanted the German princes to agree to join forces  to battle the Turks. He was concerned about possible  threats from France. Charles was also considering a  possible alliance with England, where his aunt Catherine  was married to King Henry VIII. The empire needed  a council of regency set up for governing the empire  when the emperor was absent. Finally, the finances of  the empire needed to be arranged on a solid footing.

These were some of the issues that the diet would  face. To this assembly the German princes came by  the hundreds—the electors, the governors, and rulers  at all levels attended. Some of the more notable included  Frederick the Wise, ruler of the province of Saxony  (which included Wittenberg); Duke George of Saxony,  an early supporter of Luther who had become a bitter  foe; and Dietrich von Clemm, master of the Teutonic  Knights. Besides the rulers, many doctors of theology  from various universities came to Worms.

In addition to Charles’ ambitious political agenda  and all the issues he faced, there was also the “German  problem.” This was a reference to Martin Luther, his  attacks on the Romish church, and the storm of political  protest arising out of Martin Luther’s writings. Charles  had already made plain what was in his heart. He was  a faithful son of the Church of Rome and would defend  Rome to the end. But how to deal with Luther in his  new position, that was the question.

The high officials of the Roman Catholic Church  were present in force to exert all the influence they could  on Charles. Many cardinals and archbishops attended.  Two specially appointed papal legates were present,  commissioned by Pope Leo X. The leader of the  church officials was the legate Hieronymous Aleander.  Aleander had formerly held the significant positions of  rector of the renowned university of Paris and then the  Vatican librarian. Pope Leo had selected him to be the special papal advisor to Charles V on the Luther matter.  Aleander’s goal was to obtain Charles’ condemnation  of Luther, thus supporting the papal bull condemning  Luther. He hoped to gain this while at the same time  not giving Luther any opportunity for a public hearing.

And finally, attending the diet was Martin Luther  himself. His appearance at the Diet of Worms occurred  only two and a half years after he had posted his Ninety-  five Theses in Wittenberg. Luther’s life since that day  had been a whirlwind of activity as he was driven by the  controversy. Many monks, priests, bishops, university  professors, and special papal delegates had attacked  Luther. The printing press spread his replies and his  teachings far and wide.

And then there were the public debates. In April of  1518, he debated John Eck on the topic of sin, free will,  and grace (Heidelberg Disputation). As a result of this,  Luther came to reject the notion that works merit with  God and that fallen man has a free will. God was leading  Luther step by step into a deeper understanding of the  issues of the great battle for sovereign grace in salvation.

Rome took serious notice of Luther after Heidelberg,  recognizing the real threat to papal power. On August  7, Luther received a papal letter instructing him to report  to Rome in 60 days. On August 23, the pope demanded  of Frederick the Wise that he deliver up this “child  of the devil.” Frederick rather arranged for a meeting  with Cardinal Cajetan at the upcoming Diet of Augsburg  in October. Luther and Cardinal Cajetan debated the  issues. Cajetan ordered Luther to renounce his views.  Luther refused. We should notice that Frederick’s refusal  to hand over Luther is significant: it is the first instance  of a ruler protecting one of the Reformation figures.

The pope tried diplomacy once more, sending Karl  von Miltitz in January 1519. He did everything in his  power to persuade Luther to renounce his views and  submit to Rome. He did obtain from Luther a promise  to write a letter of apology to the pope asking for pardon,  which Luther did in March.

Next came the Leipzig Disputation in the summer  of 1519, sanctioned by Duke George of Saxony. Once  again Luther faced the capable debater John Eck. In  preparation for this debate, Luther had studied the issue  of papal authority, its history and claims. Eck and  Luther faced off. Eck charged Luther with the errors  of Jon Hus on the doctrine of the church. Luther first  denied it, but after reading some of the Council of Constantine’s  judgments against Hus, he concluded that  Hus was correct in many respects, and that the Council  of Constance had wrongly condemned Hus. The significance  is that Luther became convinced that councils  and popes are not infallible. And, especially important,  his conviction was confirmed that Scripture is the only  authority!

The year 1520 was a watershed year. On June 15,  1520 the papal bull Exsurge Domine gave Luther 60  days to recant or be excommunicated. Luther’s full  condemnation was not far behind. (See the following  article for details.)

In the meantime, Luther continued to study and write.  He wrote three especially important works in 1520. The  first was To the Christian Nobility. In this address to  the German nobles, Luther set forth the doctrine of the  priesthood of all believers. The Spirit is given to all believers  and guides them into the truth. He also appealed  to the nobles to provide education for the people. The  second was On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.  In this work, Luther examined all seven sacraments of  Rome, and took the position that there are but three sacraments,  not seven (Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Penance).  He also destroyed the bedrock of the whole sacerdotal  system of worship by rejecting transubstantiation.  When Erasmus read this work, he is reported to have said  that this made the rift between Luther and Rome permanent.  The third significant work was The Freedom of a  Christian, which developed the truth of Christian liberty.  Luther sent this to Pope Leo X.

God was using Luther to reform His church. Luther  was also the darling of the German people, long oppressed  and robbed by the Romish church. When Luther  came to Worms, he was accompanied by a crowd of  enthusiastic supporters including knights and peasants.  His arrival led to as much excitement as the coming of  the emperor. Aleander reported the mood of the city,  even of Germany. “All Germany is in revolution. Nine  tenths shout ‘Luther!’ as their war cry; and the other  tenth cares nothing about Luther, and cries: ‘Death to  the court of Rome!’”1

This was the highly charged atmosphere in which the  Diet of Worms was held. The rulers of Germany were  likewise very divided on their view of Luther, though  for many rulers their support for Luther was not out  of religious conviction but political motivations. Nonetheless,  the Diet of Worms would be a most significant  moment, even a defining moment for Luther and the  Reformation. And God providentially ensured that His  chosen Reformer would not be put to death and that the  Reformation would not be squelched. On the contrary,  the stand of Luther would be the clearest and boldest  public confession of his convictions grounded on the  holy Scriptures.


1 A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969), 70.