Luther's Last Appearance Before the Diet

A deep silence settled over the room as every ear strained to catch Luther’s reply. What a moment! The fate, not only of the Reformation, but of nations was at that moment hanging in the balance.

Luther Before the Diet

Luther began by graciously saluting the emperor, the princes, and the lords. While he spoke firmly, he addressed the assembly in modest tones. “Most serene emperor! illustrious princes! gracious lords! I appear before you this day, in conformity with the order given me yesterday, and by God’s mercies I conjure your majesty and your august highnesses to listen graciously to the defense of a cause which I am assured is just and true. If, through ignorance, I should transgress the usages and proprieties of courts, I entreat you to pardon me; for I was not brought up in the palaces of kings, but in the seclusion of a convent.

“Yesterday, two questions were put to me on behalf of his imperial majesty: the first, if I was the author of the books whose titles were enumerated; the second, if I would retract or defend the doctrine I had taught in them. To the first question I then made answer, and I preserve in that reply.

“As for the second, I have written works on many different subjects. There are some in which I have treated of faith and good works, in a manner at once so pure, so simple, and so scriptural, that even my adversaries, far from finding anything to censure in them, allow that these works are useful and worthy of being read by all pious men. The papal bull, however violent it may be, acknowledges this. If, therefore, I were to retract these, what should I do? . . . Wretched man! Among all men, I alone should abandon truths that friends and enemies approve, and I should oppose what the whole world glories in confessing. . . .

“Second, I have written books against the papacy, in which I have attacked those who, by their false doctrine, their evil lies, or their scandalous example, afflict the Christian world and destroy both body and soul. The complaints of all who fear God are confirmatory of this. Is it not evident that the laws and human doctrines of the popes entangle, torment, and vex the consciences of believers, while the crying and perpetual extortions of Rome swallow up the wealth and the riches of Christendom, and especially of this illustrious nation? . . .

“Were I to retract what I have said on this subject, what should I do but lend additional strength to this tyranny and open the floodgates to torment of impiety? Overflowing with still greater fury than before, we should see these insolent men increase in number, behave more tyrannically, and domineer more and more. And not only would the yoke that now weighs upon the Christian people be rendered heavier by my retraction, but it would become, so to speak, more legitimate; for by this very retraction it would receive the confirmation of your most serene majesty and of all the states of the holy empire. Gracious God! I should thus become a vile cloak to cover and conceal every kind of malice and tyranny! . . .

“Lastly, I have written books against individuals who desired to defend the Romish tyranny and to destroy the faith. I frankly confess that I may have attacked them with more acrimony than is becoming my ecclesiastical profession. I do not consider myself a saint, but I cannot disavow these writings; for by so doing I should sanction the impiety of my adversaries, and they would seize the opportunity of oppressing the people of God with still greater cruelty.

“Yet I am but a mere man, and not God; I shall therefore defend myself as Christ did. If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil (see John 18:23) said He. How much more should I, who am but dust and ashes and who may so easily go astray desire every man to state his objections to my doctrine.

“For this reason, most serene emperor and you, most illustrious princes, and all men of every degree, I conjure you, by the mercy of God, to prove from the writings of the prophets and the apostles that I have erred. As soon as I am convinced of this, I will retract every error and be the first to lay hold of my books and throw them into the fire.” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 7, chap. 8

In closing, Luther drew the attention of the assembly to a judgment that they must each face: not a judgment beyond the grave but of the here and now. They were each, he pointed out, on trial. By their decisions, they were to determine whether their thrones were to be established or to be swept away in a coming deluge of wrath. “I might speak,” Luther continued, “of Pharaohs, the kings of Babylon, and those of Israel whose labours never more effectually contributed to their own destruction than when they sought by counsels, to all appearance most wise, to strengthen their dominion.” Ibid.

Luther’s Defense Repeated

Luther had spoken in German with great modesty and firmness. The imposing assembly, as well as his own emotion, had greatly fatigued him. The emperor, however, greatly disliked the German language, which he poorly understood, and it was now demanded of Luther that he repeat his defense in Latin. Frederick of Thun, the privy councilor of the Elector of Saxony, had been stationed by Luther’s side to see that no violence was used against him. Seeing Luther’s exhausted condition, he said, “If you cannot repeat what you have said, that will do, doctor.” Ibid. But Luther, after a brief pause, repeated his speech with the same energy he had presented his first. “God’s providence directed in this matter. The minds of many of the princes were so blinded by error and superstition that at the first delivery they did not see the force of Luther’s reasoning; but the repetition enabled them to perceive clearly the points presented.” The Great Controversy, 159

When he had finished speaking, the Chancellor of Treves said with indignation, “ ‘You have not answered the question put to you. You were not summoned hither to call in question the decisions of councils. You were required to give a clear and precise answer. Will you, or will you not, retract?’ Upon this Luther replied without hesitation: ‘Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning,—unless I am persuaded by the means of the passages I have quoted,—and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.’ And then, looking round on this assembly before which he stood and which held his life in its hands, he said: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other; May God help me! Amen!’ ” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 7, chap. 8

The words of the Reformer had a profound impact on the assembly. Many of the princes could scarcely conceal their admiration. In all, Luther had spoken for nearly two hours. The effects of Aleander’s address, given so eloquently before the diet but a short time before, had dissipated in less than a week; but Luther’s was to live on to stir men’s hearts for hundreds of years to come.

To their amazement, the princes discovered that the roles had completely reversed. But two hours earlier Luther had stood before them apparently condemned, but they found that they had now been summoned to stand before his bar. Unawed by the crowns they wore, or the armies they commanded, this simple monk had entreated, admonished, and reproved them. It mattered not what they might do with the Reformer; the victory was clearly his. Nothing that Rome might now do could reverse her defeat, or conceal the victory that had been won.

As soon as the assembly had partially recovered, the chancellor spoke. “ ‘If you do not retract, the emperor and the states of the empire will consult what course to adopt against an incorrigible heretic.’ At these words Luther’s friends began to tremble; but the monk repeated: ‘May God be my helper; for I can retract nothing.’ ” Ibid.

After Luther withdrew, the princes deliberated. The partisans of Rome could not bring themselves to concede defeat, and Luther was again summoned before them. The speaker for the diet again addressed him. “Martin, you have not spoken with the modesty becoming your position. The distinction you have made between your books was futile; for if you retracted those that contained your errors, the emperor would not have allowed the others to be burnt. It is extravagant in you to demand to be refuted by Scripture, when you are reviving heresies condemned by the general council of Constance. The emperor, therefore, calls upon you to declare simply, yes or no, whether you presume to maintain what you have advanced, or whether you will retract a portion?’—’I have no other reply to make than that which I have already made,’ answered Luther calmly.” Ibid. Firm as a rock, the Reformer remained unmoved by the waves beating about him. His firm, unshaken stand made a profound impression upon the assembly. Charles V arose, and with him all of the assembly. Deliberations were at an end until the morrow.

Two imperial officers formed Luther’s escort. Some imagined that Luther was being led forth to the scaffold, and a great tumult broke out. It was quickly quelled when Luther assured them that he was merely being escorted to his hotel.

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