Luther Before the Diet
A new emperor, Charles V, had ascended the throne of
Germany, and the emissaries of Rome hastened to present their
congratulations and induce the monarch to employ his power against the
Reformation. On the other hand, the elector of Saxony, to whom Charles
was in great degree indebted for his crown, entreated him to take no
step against Luther until he should have granted him a hearing. The
emperor was thus placed in a position of great perplexity and
embarrassment. The papists would be satisfied with nothing short of an
imperial edict sentencing Luther to death. The elector had declared
firmly that "neither his imperial majesty nor any other person had
shown that Luther's writings had been refuted;" therefore he
requested "that Dr. Luther should be furnished with a safe-conduct,
so that he might appear before a tribunal of learned, pious, and
impartial judges."--D'Aubigne, b. 6, ch. 11.
The attention of all parties was now directed to the
assembly of the German states which convened at Worms soon after the
accession of Charles to the empire. There were important political
questions and interests to be considered by this national council; for
the first time the princes of Germany were to meet their youthful
monarch in deliberative assembly. From all parts of the fatherland had
come the dignitaries of church and state. Secular lords, highborn,
powerful, and jealous of their hereditary rights; princely
ecclesiastics, flushed with their conscious
superiority in rank and power; courtly knights and their armed
retainers; and ambassadors from foreign and distant lands,--all gathered
at Worms. Yet in that vast assembly the subject that excited the deepest
interest was the cause of the Saxon Reformer.
Charles had previously directed the elector to bring
Luther with him to the Diet, assuring him of protection, and promising a
free discussion, with competent persons, of the questions in dispute.
Luther was anxious to appear before the emperor. His health was at this
time much impaired; yet he wrote to the elector: "If I cannot go to
Worms in good health, I will be carried there, sick as I am. For if the
emperor calls me, I cannot doubt that it is the call of God Himself. If
they desire to use violence against me, and that is very probable (for
it is not for their instruction that they order me to appear), I place
the matter in the Lord's hands. He still lives and reigns who preserved
the three young men in the burning fiery furnace. If He will not save
me, my life is of little consequence. Let us only prevent the gospel
from being exposed to the scorn of the wicked, and let us shed our blood
for it, for fear they should triumph. It is not for me to decide whether
my life or my death will contribute most to the salvation of all. . . .
You may expect everything from me. . . except flight and recantation.
Fly I cannot, and still less retract."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 1.
As the news was circulated at Worms that Luther was
to appear before the Diet, a general excitement was created. Aleander,
the papal legate to whom the case had been specially entrusted, was
alarmed and enraged. He saw that the result would be disastrous to the
papal cause. To institute inquiry into a case in which the pope had
already pronounced sentence of condemnation would be to cast contempt
upon the authority of the sovereign pontiff. Furthermore, he was
apprehensive that the eloquent and powerful arguments of this man might
turn away many of the princes from the cause of the pope. He therefore,
in the most
urgent manner, remonstrated with Charles against
Luther's appearance at Worms. About this time the bull declaring
Luther's excommunication was published; and this, coupled with the
representations of the legate, induced the emperor to yield. He wrote to
the elector that if Luther would not retract, he must remain at
Not content with this victory, Aleander labored with
all the power and cunning at his command to secure Luther's
condemnation. With a persistence worthy of a better cause, he urged the
matter upon the attention of princes, prelates, and other members of the
assembly, accusing the Reformer of "sedition, rebellion, impiety,
and blasphemy." But the vehemence and passion manifested by the
legate revealed too plainly the spirit by which he was actuated.
"He is moved by hatred and vengeance," was the general remark,
"much more than by zeal and piety."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 1. The
majority of the Diet were more than ever inclined to regard Luther's
cause with favor.
With redoubled zeal Aleander urged upon the emperor
the duty of executing the papal edicts. But under the laws of Germany
this could not be done without the concurrence of the princes; and,
overcome at last by the legate's importunity, Charles bade him present
his case to the Diet. "It was a proud day for the nuncio. The
assembly was a great one: the cause was even greater. Aleander was to
plead for Rome, . . . the mother and mistress of all churches." He
was to vindicate the princedom of Peter before the assembled
principalities of Christendom. "He had the gift of eloquence, and
he rose to the greatness of the occasion. Providence ordered it that
Rome should appear and plead by the ablest of her orators in the
presence of the most august of tribunals, before she was
condemned." --Wylie, b. 6, ch. 4. With some misgivings those who
favored the Reformer looked forward to the effect of Aleander's speech.
The elector of Saxony was not present, but by his direction some of his
councilors attended to take notes of the nuncio's address.
With all the power of learning and eloquence,
Aleander set himself to overthrow the truth. Charge after charge he
hurled against Luther as an enemy of the church and the state, the
living and the dead, clergy and laity, councils and private Christians.
"In Luther's errors there is enough," he declared, to warrant
the burning of "a hundred thousand heretics."
In conclusion he endeavored to cast contempt upon the
adherents of the reformed faith: "What are all these Lutherans? A
crew of insolent pedagogues, corrupt priests, dissolute monks, ignorant
lawyers, and degraded nobles, with the common people whom they have
misled and perverted. How far superior to them is the Catholic party in
number, ability, and power! A unanimous decree from this illustrious
assembly will enlighten the simple, warn the imprudent, decide the
waverers, and give strength to the weak." --D'Aubigne, b. 7, ch. 3.
With such weapons the advocates of truth in every age
have been attacked. The same arguments are still urged against all who
dare to present, in opposition to established errors, the plain and
direct teachings of God's word. "Who are these preachers of new
doctrines?" exclaim those who desire a popular religion. "They
are unlearned, few in numbers, and of the poorer class. Yet they claim
to have the truth, and to be the chosen people of God. They are ignorant
and deceived. How greatly superior in numbers and influence is our
church! How many great and learned men are among us! How much more power
is on our side!" These are the arguments that have a telling
influence upon the world; but they are no more conclusive now than in
the days of the Reformer.
The Reformation did not, as many suppose, end with
Luther. It is to be continued to the close of this world's history.
Luther had a great work to do in reflecting to others the light which
God had permitted to shine upon him; yet he did not receive all the
light which was to be given to the world. From that time to this, new
light has been
continually shining upon the Scriptures, and new
truths have been constantly unfolding.
The legate's address made a deep impression upon the
Diet. There was no Luther present, with the clear and convincing truths
of God's word, to vanquish the papal champion. No attempt was made to
defend the Reformer. There was manifest a general disposition not only
to condemn him and the doctrines which he taught, but if possible to
uproot the heresy. Rome had enjoyed the most favorable opportunity to
defend her cause. All that she could say in her own vindication had been
said. But the apparent victory was the signal of defeat. Henceforth the
contrast between truth and error would be more clearly seen, as they
should take the field in open warfare. Never from that day would Rome
stand as secure as she had stood.
While most of the members of the Diet would not have
hesitated to yield up Luther to the vengeance of Rome, many of them saw
and deplored the existing depravity in the church, and desired a
suppression of the abuses suffered by the German people in consequence
of the corruption and greed of the hierarchy. The legate had presented
the papal rule in the most favorable light. Now the Lord moved upon a
member of the Diet to give a true delineation of the effects of papal
tyranny. With noble firmness, Duke George of Saxony stood up in that
princely assembly and specified with terrible exactness the deceptions
and abominations of popery, and their dire results. In closing he said:
"These are some of the abuses that cry out
against Rome. All shame has been put aside, and their only object is . .
. money, money, money, . . . so that the preachers who should teach the
truth, utter nothing but falsehoods, and are not only tolerated, but
rewarded, because the greater their lies, the greater their gain. It is
from this foul spring that such tainted waters flow. Debauchery
stretches out the hand to avarice. . . . Alas, it is the scandal caused
by the clergy that hurls so many poor souls into eternal condemnation. A
general reform must be effected."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 4.
A more able and forcible denunciation of the papal
abuses could not have been presented by Luther himself; and the fact
that the speaker was a determined enemy of the Reformer's gave greater
influence to his words.
Had the eyes of the assembly been opened, they would
have beheld angels of God in the midst of them, shedding beams of light
athwart the darkness of error and opening minds and hearts to the
reception of truth. It was the power of the God of truth and wisdom that
controlled even the adversaries of the reformation, and thus prepared
the way for the great work about to be accomplished. Martin Luther was
not present; but the voice of One greater than Luther had been heard in
A committee was at once appointed by the Diet to
prepare an enumeration of the papal oppressions that weighed so heavily
on the German people. This list, containing a hundred and one
specifications, was presented to the emperor, with a request that he
would take immediate measures for the correction of these abuses.
"What a loss of Christian souls," said the petitioners,
"what depredations, what extortions, on account of the scandals by
which the spiritual head of Christendom is surrounded! It is our duty to
prevent the ruin and dishonor of our people. For this reason we most
humbly but most urgently entreat you to order a general reformation, and
to undertake its accomplishment."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 4.
The council now demanded the Reformer's appearance
before them. Notwithstanding the entreaties, protests, and threats of
Aleander, the emperor at last consented, and Luther was summoned to
appear before the Diet. With the summons was issued a safe-conduct,
ensuring his return to a place of security. These were borne to
Wittenberg by a herald, who was commissioned to conduct him to Worms.
The friends of Luther were terrified and distressed.
Knowing the prejudice and enmity against him, they feared that even his
safe-conduct would not be respected, and they entreated him not to
imperil his life. He replied: "The papists do not desire my coming
to Worms, but my
condemnation and my death. It matters not. Pray not
for me, but for the word of God. . . . Christ will give me His Spirit to
overcome these ministers of error. I despise them during my life; I
shall triumph over them by my death. They are busy at Worms about
compelling me to retract; and this shall be my retraction: I said
formerly that the pope was Christ's vicar; now I assert that he is our
Lord's adversary, and the devil's apostle."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 6.
Luther was not to make his perilous journey alone.
Besides the imperial messenger, three of his firmest friends determined
to accompany him. Melanchthon earnestly desired to join them. His heart
was knit to Luther's, and he yearned to follow him, if need be, to
prison or to death. But his entreaties were denied. Should Luther
perish, the hopes of the Reformation must center upon his youthful
colaborer. Said the Reformer as he parted from Melanchthon: "If I
do not return, and my enemies put me to death, continue to teach, and
stand fast in the truth. Labor in my stead. . . . If you survive, my
death will be of little consequence."-- Ibid., b. 7, ch. 7.
Students and citizens who had gathered to witness Luther's departure
were deeply moved. A multitude whose hearts had been touched by the
gospel, bade him farewell with weeping. Thus the Reformer and his
companions set out from Wittenberg.
On the journey they saw that the minds of the people
were oppressed by gloomy forebodings. At some towns no honors were
proffered them. As they stopped for the night, a friendly priest
expressed his fears by holding up before Luther the portrait of an
Italian reformer who had suffered martyrdom. The next day they learned
that Luther's writings had been condemned at Worms. Imperial messengers
were proclaiming the emperor's decree and calling upon the people to
bring the proscribed works to the magistrates. The herald, fearing for
Luther's safety at the council, and thinking that already his resolution
might be shaken, asked if he still wished to go forward. He answered:
"Although interdicted in every city, I shall go on."--Ibid.,
b. 7, ch. 7.
At Erfurt, Luther was received with honor. Surrounded
by admiring crowds, he passed through the streets that he had often
traversed with his beggar's wallet. He visited his convent cell, and
thought upon the struggles through which the light now flooding Germany
had been shed upon his soul. He was urged to preach. This he had been
forbidden to do, but the herald granted him permission, and the friar
who had once been made the drudge of the convent, now entered the
To a crowded assembly he spoke from the words of
Christ, "Peace be unto you." "Philosophers, doctors, and
writers," he said, "have endeavored to teach men the way to
obtain everlasting life, and they have not succeeded. I will now tell it
to you: . . . God has raised one Man from the dead, the Lord Jesus
Christ, that He might destroy death, extirpate sin, and shut the gates
of hell. This is the work of salvation. . . . Christ has vanquished!
this is the joyful news; and we are saved by His work, and not by our
own. . . . Our Lord Jesus Christ said, 'Peace be unto you; behold My
hands;' that is to say, Behold, O man! it is I, I alone, who have taken
away thy sin, and ransomed thee; and now thou hast peace, saith the
He continued, showing that true faith will be
manifested by a holy life. "Since God has saved us, let us so order
our works that they may be acceptable to Him. Art thou rich? let thy
goods administer to the necessities of the poor. Art thou poor? let thy
services be acceptable to the rich. If thy labor is useful to thyself
alone, the service that thou pretendest to render unto God is a
lie."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 7.
The people listened as if spellbound. The bread of
life was broken to those starving souls. Christ was lifted up before
them as above popes, legates, emperors, and kings. Luther made no
reference to his own perilous position. He did not seek to make himself
the object of thought or sympathy. In the contemplation of Christ he had
lost sight of self. He hid behind the Man of Calvary, seeking only to
present Jesus as the sinner's Redeemer.
As the Reformer proceeded on his journey, he was
everywhere regarded with great interest. An eager multitude thronged
about him, and friendly voices warned him of the purpose of the
Romanists. "They will burn you," said some, "and reduce
your body to ashes, as they did with John Huss." Luther answered,
"Though they should kindle a fire all the way from Worms to
Wittenberg, the flames of which reached to heaven, I would walk through
it in the name of the Lord; I would appear before them; I would enter
the jaws of this behemoth, and break his teeth, confessing the Lord
Jesus Christ."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 7.
The news of his approach to Worms created great
commotion. His friends trembled for his safety; his enemies feared for
the success of their cause. Strenuous efforts were made to dissuade him
from entering the city. At the instigation of the papists he was urged
to repair to the castle of a friendly knight, where, it was declared,
all difficulties could be amicably adjusted. Friends endeavored to
excite his fears by describing the dangers that threatened him. All
their efforts failed. Luther, still unshaken, declared: "Even
should there be as many devils in Worms as tiles on the housetops, still
I would enter it."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 7.
Upon his arrival at Worms, a vast crowd flocked to
the gates to welcome him. So great a concourse had not assembled to
greet the emperor himself. The excitement was intense, and from the
midst of the throng a shrill and plaintive voice chanted a funeral dirge
as a warning to Luther of the fate that awaited him. "God will be
my defense," said he, as he alighted from his carriage.
The papists had not believed that Luther would really
venture to appear at Worms, and his arrival filled them with
consternation. The emperor immediately summoned his councilors to
consider what course should be pursued. One of the bishops, a rigid
papist, declared: "We have long consulted on this matter. Let your
imperial majesty get rid of this man at once. Did not Sigismund cause
John Huss to be burnt? We are not bound either to give or to
observe the safe-conduct of a heretic."
"No," said the emperor, "we must keep our promise."--Ibid.,
b. 7, ch. 8. It was therefore decided that the Reformer should be heard.
All the city were eager to see this remarkable man,
and a throng of visitors soon filled his lodgings. Luther had scarcely
recovered from his recent illness; he was wearied from the journey,
which had occupied two full weeks; he must prepare to meet the momentous
events of the morrow, and he needed quiet and repose. But so great was
the desire to see him that he had enjoyed only a few hours' rest when
noblemen, knights, priests, and citizens gathered eagerly about him.
Among these were many of the nobles who had so boldly demanded of the
emperor a reform of ecclesiastical abuses and who, says Luther,
"had all been freed by my gospel."--Martyn, page 393. Enemies,
as well as friends, came to look upon the dauntless monk; but he
received them with unshaken calmness, replying to all with dignity and
wisdom. His bearing was firm and courageous. His pale, thin face, marked
with the traces of toil and illness, wore a kindly and even joyous
expression. The solemnity and deep earnestness of his words gave him a
power that even his enemies could not wholly withstand. Both friends and
foes were filled with wonder. Some were convinced that a divine
influence attended him; others declared, as had the Pharisees concerning
Christ: "He hath a devil."
On the following day Luther was summoned to attend
the Diet. An imperial officer was appointed to conduct him to the hall
of audience; yet it was with difficulty that he reached the place. Every
avenue was crowded with spectators eager to look upon the monk who had
dared resist the authority of the pope.
As he was about to enter the presence of his judges,
an old general, the hero of many battles, said to him kindly: "Poor
monk, poor monk, thou art now going to make a nobler stand than I or any
other captains have ever made in the bloodiest of our battles. But if
thy cause is just, and thou art sure of it, go forward in God's name,
nothing. God will not forsake thee."--D'Aubigne,
b. 7, ch. 8.
At length Luther stood before the council. The
emperor occupied the throne. He was surrounded by the most illustrious
personages in the empire. Never had any man appeared in the presence of
a more imposing assembly than that before which Martin Luther was to
answer for his faith. "This appearance was of itself a signal
victory over the papacy. The pope had condemned the man, and he was now
standing before a tribunal which, by this very act, set itself above the
pope. The pope had laid him under an interdict, and cut him off from all
human society; and yet he was summoned in respectful language, and
received before the most august assembly in the world. The pope had
condemned him to perpetual silence, and he was now about to speak before
thousands of attentive hearers drawn together from the farthest parts of
Christendom. An immense revolution had thus been effected by Luther's
instrumentality. Rome was already descending from her throne, and it was
the voice of a monk that caused this humiliation."--Ibid., b. 7, ch.
In the presence of that powerful and titled assembly
the lowly born Reformer seemed awed and embarrassed. Several of the
princes, observing his emotion, approached him, and one of them
whispered: "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to
kill the soul." Another said: "When ye shall be brought before
governors and kings for My sake, it shall be given you, by the Spirit of
your Father, what ye shall say." Thus the words of Christ were
brought by the world's great men to strengthen His servant in the hour
Luther was conducted to a position directly in front
of the emperor's throne. A deep silence fell upon the crowded assembly.
Then an imperial officer arose and, pointing to a collection of Luther's
writings, demanded that the Reformer answer two questions--whether he
acknowledged them as his, and whether he proposed to retract the
opinions which he had therein advanced. The titles of the books having
been read, Luther replied that as to the first
question, he acknowledged the books to be his. "As to the
second," he said, "seeing that it is a question which concerns
faith and the salvation of souls, and in which the word of God, the
greatest and most precious treasure either in heaven or earth, is
involved, I should act imprudently were I to reply without reflection. I
might affirm less than the circumstance demands, or more than truth
requires, and so sin against this saying of Christ: 'Whosoever shall
deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father which is in
heaven.' [Matthew 10:33.] For this reason I entreat your imperial
majesty, with all humility, to allow me time, that I may answer without
offending against the word of God."-- D'Aubigne, b. 7, ch. 8.
In making this request, Luther moved wisely. His
course convinced the assembly that he did not act from passion or
impulse. Such calmness and self-command, unexpected in one who had shown
himself bold and uncompromising, added to his power, and enabled him
afterward to answer with a prudence, decision, wisdom, and dignity that
surprised and disappointed his adversaries, and rebuked their insolence
The next day he was to appear to render his final
answer. For a time his heart sank within him as he contemplated the
forces that were combined against the truth. His faith faltered;
fearfulness and trembling came upon him, and horror overwhelmed him.
Dangers multiplied before him; his enemies seemed about to triumph, and
the powers of darkness to prevail. Clouds gathered about him and seemed
to separate him from God. He longed for the assurance that the Lord of
hosts would be with him. In anguish of spirit he threw himself with his
face upon the earth and poured out those broken, heart-rending cries,
which none but God can fully understand.
"O almighty and everlasting God," he
pleaded, "how terrible is this world! Behold, it openeth its mouth
to swallow me up, and I have so little trust in Thee. . . . 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, do Thou help me against all the wisdom of the
world. Do this, . . . Thou alone; . . . for this is not my work, but
Thine. I have nothing to do here, nothing to contend for with these
great ones of the world. . . . But the cause is Thine, . . . and it is a
righteous and eternal cause. O Lord, help me! Faithful and unchangeable
God, in no man do I place my trust. . . . All that is of man is
uncertain; all that cometh of man fails. . . . Thou hast chosen me for
this work. . . . Stand at my side, for the sake of Thy well-beloved
Jesus Christ, who is my defense, my shield, and my strong tower."--Ibid.,
b. 7, ch. 8.
An all-wise Providence had permitted Luther to
realize his peril, that he might not trust to his own strength and rush
presumptuously into danger. Yet it was not the fear of personal
suffering, a dread of torture or death, which seemed immediately
impending, that overwhelmed him with its terror. He had come to the
crisis, and he felt his insufficiency to meet it. Through his weakness
the cause of truth might suffer loss. Not for his own safety, but for
the triumph of the gospel did he wrestle with God. Like Israel's, in
that night struggle beside the lonely stream, was the anguish and
conflict of his soul. Like Israel, he prevailed with God. In his utter
helplessness his faith fastened upon Christ, the mighty Deliverer. He
was strengthened with the assurance that he would not appear alone
before the council. Peace returned to his soul, and he rejoiced that he
was permitted to uplift the word of God before the rulers of the
With his mind stayed upon God, Luther prepared for
the struggle before him. He thought upon the plan of his answer,
examined passages in his own writings, and drew from the Holy Scriptures
suitable proofs to sustain his positions. Then, laying his left hand on
the Sacred Volume, which was open before him, he lifted his right hand
to heaven and vowed "to remain faithful to the gospel, and
freely to confess his faith, even should he seal his
testimony with his blood."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 8.
When he was again ushered into the presence of the
Diet, his countenance bore no trace of fear or embarrassment. Calm and
peaceful, yet grandly brave and noble, he stood as God's witness among
the great ones of the earth. The imperial officer now demanded his
decision as to whether he desired to retract his doctrines. Luther made
his answer in a subdued and humble tone, without violence or passion.
His demeanor was diffident and respectful; yet he manifested a
confidence and joy that surprised the assembly.
"Most serene emperor, illustrious princes,
gracious lords," said Luther, "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 assured is just and true. If, through
ignorance, I should transgress the usages and proprieties of courts, I
entreat you to pardon me; for I was not brought up in the palaces of
kings, but in the seclusion of a convent."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 8.
Then, proceeding to the question, he stated that his
published works were not all of the same character. In some he had
treated of faith and good works, and even his enemies declared them not
only harmless but profitable. To retract these would be to condemn
truths which all parties confessed. The second class consisted of
writings exposing the corruptions and abuses of the papacy. To revoke
these works would strengthen the tyranny of Rome and open a wider door
to many and great impieties. In the third class of his books he had
attacked individuals who had defended existing evils. Concerning these
he freely confessed that he had been more violent than was becoming. He
did not claim to be free from fault; but even these books he could not
revoke, for such a course would embolden the enemies of truth, and they
would then take occasion to crush God's people with still greater
"Yet I am but a mere man, and not God," he
continued; "I shall therefore defend myself as Christ did: 'If I
have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil.' . . . By the mercy of God,
I conjure you, most serene emperor, and you, most illustrious princes,
and all men of every degree, to prove from the writings of the prophets
and 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 is now, 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 earth, but a sword,' said Jesus Christ. God is
wonderful and terrible in His counsels; beware lest, by presuming to
quench dissensions, you should persecute the holy word of God, and draw
down upon yourselves a frightful deluge of insurmountable dangers, of
present disasters, and eternal desolation. . . . I might quote many
examples from the oracles of God. I might speak of the Pharaohs, the
kings of Babylon, and those of Israel, whose labors never more
effectually contributed to their own destruction than when they sought
by counsels, to all appearance most wise, to strengthen their dominion.
'God removeth mountains, and they know it not.'"--Ibid., b. 7, ch.
Luther had spoken in German; he was now requested to
repeat the same words in Latin. Though exhausted by the previous effort,
he complied, and again delivered his speech, with the same clearness and
energy as at the first. God's providence directed in this matter. The
minds of many of the princes were so blinded by error and superstition
that at the first delivery they did not see the force of Luther's
reasoning; but the repetition enabled them to perceive clearly the
Those who stubbornly closed their eyes to the light,
and determined not to be convinced of the truth, were enraged at the
power of Luther's words. As he ceased speaking, the spokesman of the
Diet said angrily: "You have not answered the question put to you.
. . . You are required to give a clear and precise answer. . . . Will
you, or will you not, retract?"
The Reformer answered: "Since your most serene
majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, 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." --Ibid., b. 7, ch. 8.
Thus stood this righteous man upon the sure
foundation of the word of God. The light of heaven illuminated his
countenance. His greatness and purity of character, his peace and joy of
heart, were manifest to all as he testified against the power of error
and witnessed to the superiority of that faith that overcomes the world.
The whole assembly were for a time speechless with
amazement. At his first answer Luther had spoken in a low tone, with a
respectful, almost submissive bearing. The Romanists had interpreted
this as evidence that his courage was beginning to fail. They regarded
the request for delay as merely the prelude to his recantation. Charles
himself, noting, half contemptuously, the monk's worn frame, his plain
attire, and the simplicity of his address, had declared: "This monk
will never make a heretic of me." The courage and firmness which he
now displayed, as well as the power and clearness of his reasoning,
filled all parties with surprise.
The emperor, moved to admiration, exclaimed:
"This monk speaks with an intrepid heart and unshaken
courage." Many of the German princes looked with pride and joy upon
this representative of their nation.
The partisans of Rome had been worsted; their cause
appeared in a most unfavorable light. They sought to maintain their
power, not be appealing to the Scriptures, but by a resort to threats,
Rome's unfailing argument. Said the spokesman of the Diet: "If you
do not retract, the emperor and the states of the empire will consult
what course to adopt against an incorrigible heretic."
Luther's friend, who had with great joy listened to
his noble defense, trembled at these words; but the doctor himself said
calmly: "May God be my helper, for I can retract nothing."--Ibid.,
b. 7, ch. 8.
He was directed to withdraw from the Diet while the
princes consulted together. It was felt that a great crisis had come.
Luther's persistent refusal to submit might affect the history of the
church for ages. It was decided to give him one more opportunity to
retract. For the last time he was brought into the assembly. Again the
question was put, whether he would renounce his doctrines. "I have
no other reply to make," he said, "than that which I have
already made." It was evident that he could not be induced, either
by promises or threats, to yield to the mandate of Rome.
The papal leaders were chagrined that their power,
which had caused kings and nobles to tremble, should be thus despised by
a humble monk; they longed to make him feel their wrath by torturing his
life away. But Luther, understanding his danger, had spoken to all with
Christian dignity and calmness. His words had been free from pride,
passion, and misrepresentation. He had lost sight of himself, and the
great men surrounding him, and felt only that he was in the presence of
One infinitely superior to popes, prelates, kings, and emperors. Christ
had spoken through Luther's testimony with a power and grandeur that for
time inspired both friends and foes with awe and
wonder. The Spirit of God had been present in that council, impressing
the hearts of the chiefs of the empire. Several of the princes boldly
acknowledged the justice of Luther's cause. Many were convinced of the
truth; but with some the impressions received were not lasting. There
was another class who did not at the time express their convictions, but
who, having searched the Scriptures for themselves, at a future time
became fearless supporters of the Reformation.
The elector Frederick had looked forward anxiously to
Luther's appearance before the Diet, and with deep emotion he listened
to his speech. With joy and pride he witnessed the doctor's courage,
firmness, and self-possession, and determined to stand more firmly in
his defense. He contrasted the parties in contest, and saw that the
wisdom of popes, kings, and prelates had been brought to nought by the
power of truth. The papacy had sustained a defeat which would be felt
among all nations and in all ages.
As the legate perceived the effect produced by
Luther's speech, he feared, as never before, for the security of the
Romish power, and resolved to employ every means at his command to
effect the Reformer's overthrow. With all the eloquence and diplomatic
skill for which he was so eminently distinguished, he represented to the
youthful emperor the folly and danger of sacrificing, in the cause of an
insignificant monk, the friendship and support of the powerful see of
His words were not without effect. On the day
following Luther's answer, Charles caused a message to be presented to
the Diet, announcing his determination to carry out the policy of his
predecessors to maintain and protect the Catholic religion. Since Luther
had refused to renounce his errors, the most vigorous measures should be
employed against him and the heresies he taught. "A single monk,
misled by his own folly, has risen against the faith of Christendom. To
stay such impiety, I will sacrifice my kingdoms, my treasures,
my friends, my body, my blood, my soul, and my life.
I am about to dismiss the Augustine Luther, forbidding him to cause the
least disorder among the people; I shall then proceed against him and
his adherents as contumacious heretics, by excommunication, by
interdict, and by every means calculated to destroy them. I call on the
members of the states to behave like faithful Christians."--Ibid.,
b. 7, ch. 9. Nevertheless the emperor declared that Luther's safe-conduct
must be respected, and that before proceedings against him could be
instituted, he must be allowed to reach his home in safety.
Two conflicting opinions were now urged by the
members of the Diet. The emissaries and representatives of the pope
again demanded that the Reformer's safe-conduct should be disregarded.
"The Rhine," they said, "should receive his ashes, as it
had received those of John Huss a century ago."--Ibid., b. 7, ch.
9. But princes of Germany, though themselves papists and avowed enemies
to Luther, protested against such a breach of public faith, as a stain
upon the honor of the nation. They pointed to the calamities which had
followed the death of Huss, and declared that they dared not call down
upon Germany, and upon the head of their youthful emperor, a repetition
of those terrible evils.
Charles himself, in answer to the base proposal,
said: "Though honor and faith should be banished from all the
world, they ought to find a refuge in the hearts of princes." --Ibid.,
b. 7, ch. 9. He was still further urged by the most bitter of Luther's
papal enemies to deal with the Reformer as Sigismund had dealt with Huss--abandon
him to the mercies of the church; but recalling the scene when Huss in
public assembly had pointed to his chains and reminded the monarch of
his plighted faith, Charles V declared: "I should not like to blush
like Sigismund."--Lenfant, vol. 1, p. 422.
Yet Charles had deliberately rejected the truths
presented by Luther. "I am firmly resolved to imitate the example
of my ancestors," wrote the monarch.--D'Aubigne, b. 7, ch. 9. He
had decided that he would not step out of the path of
custom, even to walk in the ways of truth and
righteousness. Because his fathers did, he would uphold the papacy, with
all its cruelty and corruption. Thus he took his position, refusing to
accept any light in advance of what his fathers had received, or to
perform any duty that they had not performed.
There are many at the present day thus clinging to
the customs and traditions of their fathers. When the Lord sends them
additional light, they refuse to accept it, because, not having been
granted to their fathers, it was not received by them. We are not placed
where our fathers were; consequently our duties and responsibilities are
not the same as theirs. We shall not be approved of God in looking to
the example of our fathers to determine our duty instead of searching
the word of truth for ourselves. Our responsibility is greater than was
that of our ancestors. We are accountable for the light which they
received, and which was handed down as an inheritance for us, and we are
accountable also for the additional light which is now shining upon us
from the word of God.
Said Christ of the unbelieving Jews: "If I had
not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have
no cloak for their sin." John 15:22. The same divine power had
spoken through Luther to the emperor and princes of Germany. And as the
light shone forth from God's word, His Spirit pleaded for the last time
with many in that assembly. As Pilate, centuries before, permitted pride
and popularity to close his heart against the world's Redeemer; as the
trembling Felix bade the messenger of truth, "Go thy way for this
time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee;" as
the proud Agrippa confessed, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a
Christian" (Acts 24:25; 26:28), yet turned away from the Heaven-sent
message--so had Charles V, yielding to the dictates of worldly pride and
policy, decided to reject the light of truth.
Rumors of the designs against Luther were widely
circulated, causing great excitement throughout the city. The
Reformer had made many friends, who, knowing the
treacherous cruelty of Rome toward all who dared expose her corruptions,
resolved that he should not be sacrificed. Hundreds of nobles pledged
themselves to protect him. Not a few openly denounced the royal message
of evincing a weak submission to the controlling power of Rome. On the
gates of houses and in public places, placards were posted, some
condemning and others sustaining Luther. On one of these were written
merely the significant words of the wise man: "Woe to thee, O land,
when thy king is a child." Ecclesiastes 10:16. The popular
enthusiasm in Luther's favor throughout all Germany convinced both the
emperor and the Diet that any injustice shown him would endanger the
peace of the empire and even the stability of the throne.
Frederick of Saxony maintained a studied reserve,
carefully concealing his real feelings toward the Reformer, while at the
same time he guarded him with tireless vigilance, watching all his
movements and all those of his enemies. But there were many who made no
attempt to conceal their sympathy with Luther. He was visited by
princes, counts, barons, and other persons of distinction, both lay and
ecclesiastical. "The doctor's little room," wrote Spalatin,
"could not contain all the visitors who presented themselves."--
Martyn, vol. 1, p. 404. The people gazed upon him as if he were more
than human. Even those who had no faith in his doctrines could not but
admire that lofty integrity which led him to brave death rather than
violate his conscience.
Earnest efforts were made to obtain Luther's consent
to a compromise with Rome. Nobles and princes represented to him that if
he persisted in setting up his own judgment against that of the church
and the councils he would soon be banished from the empire and would
have no defense. To this appeal Luther answered: "The gospel of
Christ cannot be preached without offense. . . . Why then should the
fear or apprehension of danger separate me from the Lord, and from that
divine word which alone is truth? No; I
would rather give up my body, my blood, and my
life."-- D'Aubigne, b. 7, ch. 10.
Again he was urged to submit to the judgment of the
emperor, and then he would have nothing to fear. "I consent,"
said he in reply, "with all my heart, that the emperor, the
princes, and even the meanest Christian, should examine and judge my
works; but on one condition, that they take the word of God for their
standard. Men have nothing to do but to obey it. Do not offer violence
to my conscience, which is bound and chained up with the Holy
Scriptures."-- Ibid., b. 7, ch. 10.
To another appeal he said: "I consent to
renounce my safe-conduct. I place my person and my life in the emperor's
hands, but the word of God--never!"--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 10. He stated
his willingness to submit to the decision of a general council, but only
on condition that the council be required to decide according to the
Scriptures. "In what concerns the word of God and the faith,"
he added, "every Christian is as good a judge as the pope, though
supported by a million councils, can be for him."--Martyn, vol. 1,
p. 410. Both friends and foes were at last convinced that further effort
for reconciliation would be useless.
Had the Reformer yielded a single point, Satan and
his hosts would have gained the victory. But his unwavering firmness was
the means of emancipating the church, and beginning a new and better
era. The influence of this one man, who dared to think and act for
himself in religious matters, was to affect the church and the world,
not only in his own time, but in all future generations. His firmness
and fidelity would strengthen all, to the close of time, who should pass
through a similar experience. The power and majesty of God stood forth
above the counsel of men, above the mighty power of Satan.
Luther was soon commanded by the authority of the
emperor to return home, and he knew that this notice would be speedily
followed by his condemnation. Threatening clouds overhung his path; but
as he departed from Worms, his
heart was filled with joy and praise. "The devil
himself," said he, "guarded the pope's citadel; but Christ has
made a wide breach in it, and Satan was constrained to confess that the
Lord is mightier than he."--D'Aubigne, b. 7, ch. 11.
After his departure, still desirous that his firmness
should not be mistaken for rebellion, Luther wrote to the emperor.
"God, who is the searcher of hearts, is my witness," he said,
"that I am ready most earnestly to obey your majesty, in honor or
in dishonor, in life or in death, and with no exception save the word of
God, by which man lives. In all the affairs of this present life, my
fidelity shall be unshaken, for here to lose or to gain is of no
consequence to salvation. But when eternal interests are concerned, God
wills not that man should submit unto man. For such submission in
spiritual matters is a real worship, and ought to be rendered solely to
the Creator."--Ibid., b. 7, ch. 11.
On the journey from Worms, Luther's reception was
even more flattering than during his progress thither. Princely
ecclesiastics welcomed the excommunicated monk, and civil rulers honored
the man whom the emperor had denounced. He was urged to preach, and,
notwithstanding the imperial prohibition, he again entered the pulpit.
"I never pledged myself to chain up the word of God," he said,
"nor will I." --Martyn, vol. 1, p. 420.
He had not been long absent from Worms, when the
papists prevailed upon the emperor to issue an edict against him. In
this decree Luther was denounced as "Satan himself under the form
of a man and dressed in a monk's frock."-- D'Aubigne, b. 7, ch. 11.
It was commanded that as soon as his safe-conduct should expire,
measures be taken to stop his work. All persons were forbidden to harbor
him, to give him food or drink, or by word or act, in public or private,
to aid or abet him. He was to be seized wherever he might be, and
delivered to the authorities. His adherents also were to be imprisoned
and their property confiscated. His writings were to be destroyed, and,
finally, all who should dare to act contrary to this decree were
included in its condemnation.
The elector of Saxony and the princes most friendly
to Luther had left Worms soon after his departure, and the emperor's
decree received the sanction of the Diet. Now the Romanists were
jubilant. They considered the fate of the Reformation sealed.
God had provided a way of escape for His servant in
this hour of peril. A vigilant eye had followed Luther's movements, and
a true and noble heart had resolved upon his rescue. It was plain that
Rome would be satisfied with nothing short of his death; only by
concealment could he be preserved from the jaws of the lion. God gave
wisdom to Frederick of Saxony to devise a plan for the Reformer's
preservation. With the co-operation of true friends the elector's
purpose was carried out, and Luther was effectually hidden from friends
and foes. Upon his homeward journey he was seized, separated from his
attendants, and hurriedly conveyed through the forest to the castle of
Wartburg, an isolated mountain fortress. Both his seizure and his
concealment were so involved in mystery that even Frederick himself for
a long time knew not whither he had been conducted. This ignorance was
not without design; so long as the elector knew nothing of Luther's
whereabouts, he could reveal nothing. He satisfied himself that the
Reformer was safe, and with this knowledge he was content.
Spring, summer, and autumn passed, and winter came,
and Luther still remained a prisoner. Aleander and his partisans exulted
as the light of the gospel seemed about to be extinguished. But instead
of this, the Reformer was filling his lamp from the storehouse of truth;
and its light was to shine forth with brighter radiance.
In the friendly security of the Wartburg, Luther for
a time rejoiced in his release from the heat and turmoil of battle. But
he could not long find satisfaction in quiet and repose. Accustomed to a
life of activity and stern conflict, he could ill endure to remain
inactive. In those solitary days the condition of the church rose up
before him, and
he cried in despair. "Alas! there is no one in
this latter day of His anger, to stand like a wall before the Lord, and
save Israel!"--Ibid., b. 9, ch. 2. Again, his thoughts returned to
himself, and he feared being charged with cowardice in withdrawing from
the contest. Then he reproached himself for his indolence and self-indulgence.
Yet at the same time he was daily accomplishing more than it seemed
possible for one man to do. His pen was never idle. While his enemies
flattered themselves that he was silenced, they were astonished and
confused by tangible proof that he was still active. A host of tracts,
issuing from his pen, circulated throughout Germany. He also performed a
most important service for his countrymen by translating the New
Testament into the German tongue. From his rocky Patmos he continued for
nearly a whole year to proclaim the gospel and rebuke the sins and
errors of the times.
But it was not merely to preserve Luther from the
wrath of his enemies, nor even to afford him a season of quiet for these
important labors, that God had withdrawn His servant from the stage of
public life. There were results more precious than these to be secured.
In the solitude and obscurity of his mountain retreat, Luther was
removed from earthly supports and shut out from human praise. He was
thus saved from the pride and self-confidence that are so often caused
by success. By suffering and humiliation he was prepared again to walk
safely upon the dizzy heights to which he had been so suddenly exalted.
As men rejoice in the freedom which the truth brings
them, they are inclined to extol those whom God has employed to break
the chains of error and superstition. Satan seeks to divert men's
thoughts and affections from God, and to fix them upon human agencies;
he leads them to honor the mere instrument and to ignore the Hand that
directs all the events of providence. Too often religious leaders who
are thus praised and reverenced lose sight of their dependence upon God
and are led to trust in themselves. As
a result they seek to control the minds and
consciences of the people, who are disposed to look to them for guidance
instead of looking to the word of God. The work of reform is often
retarded because of this spirit indulged by its supporters. From this
danger, God would guard the cause of the Reformation. He desired that
work to receive, not the impress of man, but that of God. The eyes of
men had been turned to Luther as the expounder of the truth; he was
removed that all eyes might be directed to the eternal Author of truth.