In January 1521 the pope declared Martin Luther a heretic and excommunicated him. This meant that he was to be cut off from the church as a dead branch is cut from a tree. His books were to be burned, and his followers were warned to leave him. Meander, the pope’s messenger in Germany, tried to get the new emperor, Charles V, to declare Luther an outlaw. If this were done, he could be hunted and killed like an animal. Charles was a faithful Roman Catholic. He believed that “a single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong.” He ordered Luther’s books to be burned in the Netherlands. He would have done away with Luther at once if it were possible, but in Germany he had to watch his step.
First of all, Charles was not a German. Charles was ruler over Germany only because the electors had chosen him emperor, and one of these electors was Luther’s friend Frederick the Wise of Saxony. He also knew that many other Germans supported Luther, including some knights who promised to fight if necessary to protect him. Furthermore, as emperor, Charles had agreed to uphold German laws. These laws included one that said that no German could be outlawed without a faith trial. Then, too, Charles was worried about the French and the Turks. So Charles had many things to think about as he traveled to the city of Worms (German for “high place”) in January 1521. He was on his way to meet with his first German diet, the council of nobles that made the laws for Germany.
Charles summoned Luther to appear before the diet in April of that year. Here Luther would be examined- asked questions- but would not be allowed to argue or explain his teachings. Although Luther’s friends advised him not to go to Worms, Luther would not listen to them. Along the 300 mile trip to Worms, Luther and a small group were greeted like heros along the way. Here was a man who dared to stand up to the pope and the emperor! A large crowd met him and it seemed like God was giving Luther the courage to face his trial.
Luther was escorted to the bishop’s palace to a large room that was packed. Solders, princes, electors, bishops, knights, and of course Charles V, who was only 20 years old, awaited him. Everyone knew what was at stake in this meeting. The power of the pope had been challenged. If the pope were to keep his power, then Luther must admit that he was wrong. “God, be with me!” He prayed in his heart as he faced this mighty group.
An officer warned Luther not to speak except to answer questions. Then the questioner stepped forward. He asked Luther if he had written all these books that were on the table, and if what he wrote was wrong? Luther acknowledged that he had and that he had written more that weren’t there. When asked if he was ready to recant, Luther said, “Unless I am shown my mistakes from the Scriptures or plain reason, I am bound by the Scriptures. My conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God.
I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” It was to become perhaps the most resounding answer in the history of Christianity.
A great noise broke out as everyone in the room began talking excitingly, and the emperor angrily left the room. As they left the room some of the emperor’s Spanish friends yelled, “Burn the heretic!” On April 26th Luther and his three friends left Worms to return to Wittenberg. His life may now end at any moment, but Luther had placed his life entirely in the hands of his heavenly Father.
Luther’s stand at Worms was a momentous moment in the history of Christianity and Western civilization. For the first time, the principle of freedom of conscience was stated as a right of all humans. Of course, Luther’s conscience was shaped by God’s Word. Luther had separated himself from the traditional Roman hierarchical system and the method used by the scholastics for interpreting Scripture. By God’s grace, he had established the three pillars of the reformation: grace alone; faith alone; Scripture alone.