The proceedings were always spoken in German and then repeated in Latin. Luther was asked the same question as the day before—if the books were his and if he would recant what he wrote. Luther was more prepared this time, and with greater confidence addressed the assembly. He said that his books fell into three categories. The first were Christian writings about faith and the Gospel which everyone agreed were good and godly. These he could not recant. The second category were writings against the abuses and tyranny by the pope and canon law against the German people. To recant these would be to allow the tyranny and godlessness against the German nation to continue. Many of the nobles in the room agreed wholeheartedly. The third category contained writings against persons or individuals who had attacked him or were defending the abuses. Here, Luther gave his sole concession that he may have spoken too harshly against them. However, since these writings also contained the word of God and the teaching of the Gospel, he could not recant these either.
Pressed one more time to answer clearly, Luther replied in a quiet voice, first in German, then in Latin.
“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 I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I can do no other. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.”
The phrase “I can do no other, here I stand” was included in the first printed reports of the Diet, but was not included in the handwritten notes. This is why sometimes they are included in the quote and other times relegated to a footnote as an interpolation. Regardless, Luther made the appeal once again to the Scriptures as the highest authority in the church, along with the claim that popes and councils could error. This is what ultimately got Luther into the biggest trouble—undermining the divine authority of councils and pope and placing it firmly in the Scriptures alone. The trajectory of the Lutheran Reformation would continue on the path of sola Scriptura—Scripture alone.
After Luther was escorted from the chamber, he felt a great relief, and told his supporters, “I’ve come through!” Luther had emerged on the stage of world history, and everyone was solidifying their opinions of this man and the movement. The estates discussed the matter with the emperor on April 19 and 20. They were greatly concerned about public uprisings and took a softer stance than the emperor and church officials. On April 22 they were given three days to try and resolve the matter with Luther. A committee from the estates met with Luther. While the estates tried to focus on Luther’s attitude and behavior, Luther called for a council to settle the doctrinal disputes on the basis of Scripture. All the points of the previous days were repeated and no solution could be reached. Luther asked for safe protection from the emperor and the opportunity to defend his teachings on the basis of Scripture. Any way forward, for Luther, must recognize the sole authority of the Scriptures.
On April 25, Luther was officially informed that the emperor, as protector of the church, would be taking action against him, and that he had 21 days to safely return home before the promise of protection ended. Luther was forbidden to preach, write, or stir up the people in any other way. Luther’s opponents would use the time to officially publicize the proceedings against Luther and make their case against him. The Edict of Worms, condemning Luther as a heretic, would be dated May 8 and published May 25. Luther shook the hands of the officials, and thanked the estates and the emperor for hearing him, and complained only that his case was not addressed on the basis of the Scriptures. Again, the word was paramount.
Luther set out from Worms with his companions on April 26 and retraced his steps on the journey to Wittenberg. After his stay in Eisenach, on May 4, Luther and two companions were traveling to visit friends nearby when they were ambushed by men on horseback with crossbows. Luther was thrown into a wagon and kidnapped by these men, and whisked away. The plot had been put in place by Luther’s friends who took Luther secretly to the Warburg Castle, near Eisenach, where Luther would remain in hiding for over 10 months in absolute secrecy. This was to ensure Luther’s safety and see how things would unfold after the events in Worms. From the confines of the Wartburg, with many wondering if Luther was dead or alive, Luther would continue the work of reforming the church until March, 1522, translating the New Testament into German, and spending time in prayer and writing. Subsequent events will be commemorated in future 500 year anniversaries.
As we remember Luther’s confession of Christ before the Diet of Worms, and his commitment to the authority of the Scriptures and the pure teaching of the Gospel, we see how God uses moments in history to guide and direct His church, using sinful human beings like Luther, yet filling them with the power of the Holy Spirit and the word of God. As Lutheran Christians, we recommit ourselves to the authority of the Scriptures as the word of God, to the proclamation of the pure Gospel, repenting of and reforming abuses in the church, and taking our stand against any worldly power that might threaten the Gospel. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 10:18, “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” In each generation of disciples, there are certain men and women who have the opportunity to take their stand on the word of God, and speak before worldly authorities to profess Christ and the authority of God’s Word. May the Lord strengthen us as His witnesses, as we share the Gospel with all nations and take our stand on the Word of God. May God help us. Amen!
This is Part 2 of 2. Click here for Part 1.
For further reading and sources:
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1977
Martin Brecht, Martin Luther His Road to Reformation 1483-1521, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1985
James Kittelson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003
Eric Metaxis, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, Viking, New York, 2017
Frederick Nohl, Martin Luther: Biography of a Reformer, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2003
Grace on Tap podcast episode on the Diet of Worms
Thumann, Paul (1834-1908). Luther at the Diet of Worms (detail). 1872. AKG-London.