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The Gospel Brings About Reformation By Dr. Philip Ryken

Series: On This Day in Christian History

 Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms – April 17, 1521 – By *Dr. Philip Ryken

It is customary to date the beginning of the Protestant Reformation to October 31, 1517, the day on which a young German monk and Bible scholar named Martin Luther nailed his famous “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of Wittenburg.

Luther’s document attacked the common Roman Catholic practice of allowing people to reduce the punishment for their sin by buying indulgences. His “ninety-five-Theses” also gave the first inkling of his major personal and theological breakthrough: the doctrine of justification by faith alone (If you’re not familiar with them, I have posted Luther’s 95 Theses on this website under the Category Church History).

Luther needed a breakthrough because he had long been troubled by his sins. How could an unrighteous man like himself serve a righteous God? As he later wrote:

“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God” (Luther’s Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan [vols. 1-30] and Helmut T. Lehmann [vols. 31-55], Minneapolis: Fortress and Concordia, 1955-76, 34:336-37).

What especially troubled Luther was Paul’s announcement at the beginning of his epistle to Romans: “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Rom. 1:17). This verse was a terror to Luther because the only righteousness he ever heard of was the kind that destroyed sinners like himself.

Then Luther had his breakthrough:

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which a merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who’s faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates (Luther’s Works, 34:336-37).

That was the beginning of the Reformation, but only the beginning. Luther soon attracted the attention of the pope, not so much for his doctrine of justification as for his criticism of the church. But during the next several years it would still have been possible for the church to have been reformed without being divided. It was not until the Diet of Worms (“Diet” here is a meeting – not the process of losing weight) that the break between the Reformers and the Catholics became final, which is why that meeting, which took place on April 17, 1521, was the most significant event in the church history of the sixteenth century.

Luther had been summoned to Worms by the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Charles V. When the Reformer entered the imperial chamber, he found his writings spread out on the table. These were the writings the emperor wanted Luther to recant, declaring publicly that everything he had ever written about the gospel and the church was mistaken.

Luther hardly knew what to say. Some of his works were devotional writings which no one would wish to recant. Others contained criticisms of the Roman Catholic church which no one could deny. Yet Luther was aware that some of his other writings contained harsh criticisms he perhaps ought to recant. But this he would only do on one condition, namely, that someone exposes his errors “by the writings of the prophets and the evangelists.” “Once I have been taught,” Luther went on to say, “I shall be quite ready to renounce every error, and I shall be the first to cast my books into the fire.”

This was hardly the answer the emperor and his counselors were looking for, especially since they did not have the theological expertise to refute Luther themselves. Again they pressed him to repudiate his doctrine. Finally, Luther spoke his famous words:

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. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise (For the full account of Luther’s trial, see Luther’s Works 32:103-31).

With these words, Luther staked all his theological claims on the second great principle of the Reformation: Scripture alone (sola scriptura). For the churches of the Reformation, the Bible and the Bible alone was the final authority for Christian faith and practice.

When Luther refused to place the authority of the church on par with the authority of Scripture, he was taking a stand that would end up dividing the church. And rightly so! The church can only be the church when it preaches the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as is taught in Scripture alone.

The great doctrines of the Reformation are as badly needed today as they were in the sixteenth century. Pope John Paul II announced that would grant an indulgence to anyone who made a pilgrimage to Israel in the year 2000. This is just one example of the way the Roman Catholic Church still encourages its members to pay for their sins by doing good works. For this and many other reasons, the world still needs to hear the voice of Martin Luther, who wrote the following paraphrase of Psalm 130:

From trouble deep I cry to thee,

Lord God, hear thou my crying;

Thy gracious ear, oh, turn to me,

Open it to my sighing.

For if thou mean’st to look upon

The wrong and evil that is done,

Who, Lord, can stand before thee?

With thee counts nothing but grace

To cover all our failing.

The best life cannot win the race,

Good works are unavailing.

Before thee no one glory can,

And so must tremble every man,

And live by thy grace only (Luther’s Works 53:223).

About the Author: *Philip Graham Ryken (D.Phil., University of Oxford) is the 8th president of Wheaton College and, prior to that, served as senior minister at Philadelphia’s historic Tenth Presbyterian Church. He has written several books for Crossway, and has lectured and taught at universities and seminaries worldwide. Dr. Ryken and his wife, Lisa, live in Wheaton and have five children. The article above is adapted from Chapter 41 in his book He Speaks To Me Everywhere, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004. Historical details of this article were drawn chiefly from Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, 151-74; among the best biographies of Martin Luther is Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, New York: Abingdon, 1950.

*Significant Events on April 17th in Church History:

326: St. Alexander died. He was appointed to the patriarchate of Alexandria instead of Arius, who denied Christ’s divinity. Alexander was kind to Arius, even while supporting Athanasius, the defender of the Trinity.

341: Simeon, bishop of Seleucia, Ktesiphon (located south of Baghdad), was executed for refusing to levy an extra war tax on his church people. He was one of many Persian martyrs.

858: Pope Benedict III died. Emperors Lothaire and Louis II had confirmed Anastasius in his place, but popular protest brought Benedict back.

1640: Robert Torkillus of Sweden became the first Lutheran pastor to arrive in the American colonies when they landed in Delaware.

1713: William Law was suspended from his pulpit for nonconformist views. He is famed as the author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life and a later book entitled The Power of the Spirit.

1912: The International Conference of the Negro began. Although not explicitly Christian, out of it came a renewed interest to reach Africa for Christ.

*Adapted from This Day In Christian History, edited by A Kenneth Curtis and Daniel Graves, Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications.

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