Before Luther’s greatest moment of public clarity and integrity came an act of defiance. Following the debate with Eck in Leipzig the Pope excommunicated him.
This was publicised in a ‘Papal Bull’ (a letter or decree with the Papal Seal or, ‘bulla’) largely written by Eck and distributed throughout Germany with an additional command that Luther’s works to be burned.
Luther’s response was to burn a copy of the Bull itself, along with the books of Catholic Canon Law. This act of defiance was witnessed by an excited crowd of Wittenberg residents and many students who sang praises to God as the papers burned.
Eck, the Bull and a Diet of Worms!
The various names and terms have a comic quality about them now but Luther was nearing the most dangerous part of his career yet. Luther was both vulnerable and heroic.
‘I will enter Worms under the banner of Christ against the gates of hell!’ Luther said.
The ‘Diet of Worms’ (or, The Imperial Assembly in the town of Worms) took place in 1521.
The famous John Eck was sent to question Luther and conclusively prove him to be a heretic. The crowds were immense and it was with great difficulty that Luther and his team entered the hall.
A great gathering of nobles and church officials were there including the 21 year old Emperor Charles V, six electors of the empire, 24 dukes, 8 margraves, 30 archbishops, bishops and abbotts, 7 ambassadors, papal nuncios etc. All in all 206 of the leading political and religious figures of the day. It was an intimidating sight.
To Luther’s surprise, there was no debate but simply a command for him to repent of the things he had written, to recant. Eck asked Luther to acknowledge that the books piled on the tables were his. Luther said yes.
Eck then asked him to withdraw and reject the teaching that the books contained. Sensing the gravity of the situation, Luther asked for time to reflect on the question in order that he might act wisely and in accordance with God’s word. The meeting was adjourned till the following day.
Luther prayed, ‘There is no strength in me. This is Your cause, O God, not mine. On you I rely, not on man.’
The next day when Luther was again asked to retract the doctrines he gave a speech, first in Latin then, true to form, he gave it again in German.
He ended with these famous words:
‘Unless I am convinced by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments that I am in error – for popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves – I cannot withdraw, for I am subject to the Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to the word of God.
It is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against one’s conscience.
Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So help me God.’
The meeting closed with the Emperor storming out and later said, ‘How can a single monk be right and the testimony of a thousand years of Christendom be wrong?’
Luther returned in safety and spent a period in hiding, but his influence – and the influence of the word of God – was felt all across Europe. He published many books and sermons and translated the Bible into German. Churches were reformed, many preachers raised up and large numbers turned to the Lord. A new era had begun.
Here I stand – trusting in Your Word
Here I stand – needing the intervention of God to vindicate His gospel
Here I stand – knowing that Truth cannot be suppressed forever
Here I stand – on behalf of my generation and the generations to follow
Here I stand – for the the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ
Here I stand – where else can I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life! (John 6:6)
References: The Reformation – Owen Chadwick (Pelican), Luther the Reformer – James Kittleson (IVP), Sketches from Church History – SM Houghton (Banner of Truth)
For the first part of the Martin Luther Story click here
For the next part of the Martin Luther Story click here
© 2008 Lex Loizides