When did the Protestant Reformation begin? Some people point back to October 31 of 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle church door in Wittenberg. Others point to the writings and bold stand of John Wycliffe. Still others point to Jan Hus who was martyred for his faith on July 6th 1415 after being condemned as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Constance. Hus’ last words to his executioners stated that they could burn the goose (his surname “Hus” means “goose” in Czech), but a hundred years later, a swan would come whom they would be incapable of killing. In a strange twist of providence, it was 102 years later that Martin Luther nailed his theses to the front door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in 1517.
In many ways, we can be grateful for how God used all of the figures of church history to spark the Protestant Reformation. You might not have April 18th on your calendar as a holiday, but if we want to trace to true explosion of the Reformation, we will go back to April 18th of 1521 when Martin Luther appears at the Diet of Worms.
We must remember, when Luther nailed his historic document to the Castle Church in 1517, he was an unconverted Augustinian monk. He would not be converted until a couple of years later upon the reading of Romans 1:17 when God opened his eyes to the truth of the gospel. From 1519 to 1521 something changed in Luther. He would publicly burn the Papal Bull in December of 1520 on the outside of Wittenberg with an audience of his theology students as witnesses. He would engage in the writing and publishing of three extremely controversial tracts against the Roman Catholic Church. Now—Luther is beginning to see that what he initially intended to be an internal debate was going to be an external Reformation.
It was this outspoken writing and preaching of Luther that created such a firestorm of controversy. Luther was referred to as a “wild boar” who was loose in the vineyard. It was at this point that Luther was summoned to appear at the Diet of Worms (formal assembly of the whole Roman empire’s hierarchy). Against the advice of his close friends, he would agree to appear. He was granted safe passage, but not everyone who has been granted such safety found themselves to be safe.
Rather than just appearing in the dark of night silently and ambiguous—Luther preached his way to the city of Worms. Luther’s popularity was greatly increasing by this point and everyone wanted to get a glimpse of the monk who was now publicly and defiantly opposing the entire Roman Catholic Church.
Luther would arrive in Worms in a covered wagon. Upon arriving, the city streets of Worms were lined with people. They wanted to get a glimpse of the famed monk. We have historic records stating that people were even standing on the rooftops to have a better view as his wagon pulled into town.
Due to the size and density of the massive crowd, his friends had to escort him in through a backdoor where the dignitaries were assembled—including the emperor—Charles V himself. Luther’s popularity had arisen to the level of a theological rock star in the eyes of the people. Luther was hated by many and loved by the masses.
As Luther approached this meeting and considered his defense, he did not do so with arrogance and a flippant attitude. Remember, this is the younger more poised Luther. He must have been asking himself if he would he be called out for all of his doctrinal positions or just justification by faith alone? Was it possible that a single Augustinian monk was right and the whole world was wrong?
When he walked into the room to stand before the royal assembly, the tension could be cut with a knife. Luther appeared in his humble monk’s attire. Charles V said, “He will not make a heretic out of me.”
There was a table present and on the table were all of his books. The spokesman of the emperor demanded that Luther not speak until he was bidden to speak. Finally, pointing at a pile of books on the table, he asked are these books printed in your name yours? If so, will you recant?
Luther finally spoke. In a humble tone, he admitted that all of the books on the table were indeed his books. However, in a strange twist to the tense moment, Luther asked for more time to consider his answer.
Perhaps caught off guard by the royal assembly’s desire for Luther to recant of every word and every line in every book made him pause and ask for additional time to weigh out the consequences of his answer.
Anyone who has written anything—blog or book—has certainly regretted specific word choices and even arguments at times. For Luther, this was not just a few lines in a few books—it was everything he believed. The answer came from the royal assembly—he could have one day to consider his answer.
The following day, on April 18th 1521 at 6:00pm in the evening, Luther was readmitted into the emperor’s presence. The hall was filled with personalities, politicians, and invited guests. The air with thick with drama. The temperature of the room was sweltering. Beads of sweat were lining the brow of Luther and beginning to run like little streams down his face.
After considering his answer, the room expected and even demanded that he come in with an apology and beg for forgiveness. Rather than a humble soft tone, Luther stood upright and spoke loudly with great confidence.
Luther stated emphatically that he would not retract anything he had written in the books and anything that he had said about the Roman Catholic Church in his public attacks. He stated that his attacks were the result of the Roman Catholic Church’s false teaching and to retract and apologize would grant more rein to those who destroyed Christianity.
Luther stated at one point, “Good God, what sort of tool of evil and tyranny I then would be.” The Emperor shouted “NO!” in opposition to Luther’s comments, but the poised Reformer continued to speak. He insisted that if he be wrong, that he be refuted with Scripture and he would be the first to burn his books.
Finally, one last time the spokesman of the emperor demanded an answer from the zealous hearted monk. “Will you recant?” That was the moment of truth. It was at this point that Luther said the following:
“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 recant of anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand – may God help me. AMEN.”
As Luther was being escorted out of the room—shouts of protest and request for Luther’s life were ringing in his ears. As he was taken back to his private quarters—upon entering the room with his friends, he was instantly relieved that he had come through. He then turned to a friend and said, “If I had a thousand heads I would rather have them all lopped off than to abandon my gospel.”
Following his bold stand, Luther was to go back to Wittenberg and prepare himself for the coming tsunami and firestorm. However, it was during this time that his friends kidnapped him and took him to the Wartburg Castle. Luther would spend time in hiding in this castle fortress away from the eye of the public and the pressures of the Roman Catholic Church.
It was during that time that Luther would translate the Bible from the original Greek into German at a relentless pace of 1,500 words per day. In 1522, the work was completed, and it would be the German Bible that would revolutionize worship in Germany. The German Bible would allow people to hear the gospel preached in their own tongue as opposed to Latin murmurings.
Beyond the border of Germany, this German monk and his newly translated Bible would have a dramatic impact on others who would take their stand too. Over in England, in the city of Cambridge, a group of Catholic priests would gather in the White Horse Inn to talk theology. It was in that small gathering that these men would read and discuss the writings of the German monk named Martin Luther who was causing a massive firestorm in Europe. God would save these men and they would renounce their Catholic doctrines and cling to the pure gospel of Jesus Christ alone. Out of this small group would come nine martyrs. One of these men was William Tyndale.
You know the rest of the story. Tyndale would commit himself to translating the Bible into English and would be martyred for his bold stand. Yet, as we trace the Reformation from Germany through England—we must note that something explosive happened in Worms in 1521 when Luther took his bold stand at the Diet of Worms.
It resulted in a German Bible which influenced Tyndale to translate an English Bible. Without those two Bibles, we would still be in the darkness that covered the world as a result of the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church.
As we consider the importance of what happened 500 years ago, we must recognize that the protest of the Reformation was launched into warp speed at the Diet of Worms. May the Lord be pleased to raise up many men who refuse to sell out to evangelical pressures of the day. We need men who are willing to do far more than tell the story of Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, and Tyndale. We need men who will stand with them.