Martin Luther’s most dangerous moment

On 18 April, 1521, almost exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther experienced what was probably the most dangerous moment of his entire life.

He had been asked to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, the Spaniard Charles V, at the imperial Parliament (Diet) which had been called to meet at Worms, which was situated on the Upper Rhine, about 40 miles south of Frankfurt.

Luther’s teaching

In the previous four years there had been a number of attempts by key authorities in the Roman Church to convince Luther of the errors of his teaching that Christians are declared righteous by a holy God simply by faith alone in the crucified Christ. It was rightly understood by all who took part in the ensuing controversy that Luther’s views rendered much of the medieval system of piety utterly worthless. Charles had been given the authority to burn Luther at the stake if he refused to recant.

Luther first appeared before the emperor on 17 April. It would have be an awe-inspiring occasion with all of the German princes and nobles and their retinues as well as the emperor and his Spanish guard. Luther was presented with the 30 or so books he had written since 1517 and asked if he would renounce them.

It was an unusually diffident Luther who replied. He asked for 24 hours to consider his reply. This was granted and he appeared before Charles V again the following day, 18 April. When asked the same question as the day before, Luther’s diffidence was gone, swept away by his more usual boldness.

Luther’s response to the emperor

He told the emperor that his books fell into three categories: there were books of piety, like his marvellous The Freedom of a Christian (1520), and of course, he felt there was nothing wrong in those and how could he reject their teachings. Then there were those books in which he had criticised the papacy, and there was no way he was going to recant from such attacks, because the pope was wrong in maintaining views at odds with a plain reading of Scripture. And then there were books responding to those who had critiqued his attacks on the bishop of Rome. Again, he was not prepared to recant from anything in those, since they should not have defended such blatant errors, though he was sorry for the harshness of the tone of his attacks.

He then declared in words that have echoed down to the present-day: ‘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 will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.’

The significance of Luther’s words

Luther’s brave stand at Worms, face to face most likely with a fiery death, sealed the break with Rome of those who came to be called Protestants. It also decisively determined that the movement that followed in his train – Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and even Anabaptist – would be a Biblicist one in which a spirituality of the word shaped its piety. And, though the Reformers did not realise it in their day, Luther standing before the most powerful prince in Europe with the Scriptures as his only armament set the tone for the church in the far future, when she cast the support of princes to the four winds and relied solely upon the Holy Spirit – solo Sancto Spiritu.

Michael Haykin

Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Photograph: Monument to Martin Luther in Wittenberg. Photograph by iStock.