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Martin Luther, Part 9: Luther Before the Diet

Both Luther and Elector Frederick had requested that the hearing take place before a committee appointed by the diet. At first the diet agreed to this, but on April 17 Luther was told that he was to make his appearance before the diet itself. He was also told to conduct himself courteously and not to speak except when answering questions. At four o’clock, Pappenheim, the imperial marshal and Sturm, the herald, conducted Luther to the episcopal palace. The streets were crowded with people so that they had to use side streets and alleys to get to the palace. After waiting two hours, Pappenheim and Sturm led Luther into the court chamber. He was accompanied by his friend and legal advisor, Jerome Schurf.

There Luther stood facing the most distinguished and powerful officials of the state and church. He was only thirty-seven years old, but he had experienced much. He was well informed and had successfully debated with some of the most capable men of his time. But, above all, he knew that God and his holy Word were his sure defense. The emperor Charles V sat on a throne surrounded by the electoral princes, archbishops, ministers, and secretaries. Charles whispered to someone near him, “That monk will never make a heretic of me.” On a table was a pile of twenty books that Aleander had gathered.

The hearing began. Dr. John Eck (not the same John Eck with whom Luther had debated at Leipzig) began by speaking in a loud voice: “His imperial Majesty has summoned you, Martin Luther, to find out two things: First, are you willing to confess that these books which have been circulated in your name are yours?” Luther was about to answer the question with a “yes,” when his counselor, Jerome Schurf, shouted, “Let the titles be read.” After the notary had read the titles, Luther declared that  the books were his. The second question was “Are you ready to renounce these books or part of them?” Then Luther requested the diet to grant him time for reflection before answering. He said, “It would be unwise not to reflect and deliberate over the answer to that question, since it involves faith, the salvation of souls, and the Word of God.”

After the members of the diet had consulted among themselves, they grudgingly granted Luther twenty-four hours’ time to reply to the second question. He was then escorted back to his quarters. There he talked with his friends, read the Scripture, and spent much of the night in prayer. Harmony in the state and church was of prime importance to the emperor and the pope. Not to Luther! To him they were secondary. Truth was most important to him. He had been told that he could not read his answer, but during the night he carefully prepared a draft of what he wanted to say. The next morning he was prepared to give his answer to the second question.

On April 18 shortly before four o’clock, Sturm again escorted Luther to the council chambers in the episcopal palace. Arrangements had to be made to use a larger hall since many more people had come to hear Luther’s reply. Even the large hall was soon overcrowded. Many had to stand. Dr. Eck opened the meeting with a short speech. Then he repeated the second question he had asked Luther on the previous day: “Are you ready to renounce these books or part of them?” Martin Luther was ready with his answer. He spoke confidently and without fear, first in Latin, then in German: “Most serene emperor, illustrious princes and lords, I appear before you today to reply to the questions addressed to me yesterday. I apologize if I have not given everyone here present his proper title. If I am guilty of this, I beg your forgiveness since I was not brought up in a prince’s palace but in the confines of a monastery. Yesterday two questions were addressed to me. The first I answered when I stated that I am the writer of the books here on this table. I stand by my reply of yesterday. The books are mine. As for the second question, a simple answer will not suffice since I have written  on many subjects. There are three classes of books on this table. There are writings in which I speak of faith and good works. They are so pure and scriptural that even my enemies agree that they are worthy to be read by all Christians. These books I cannot retract. Another group of books deal with the evils in the church, especially the evils of the papacy under which the German people had to suffer. These I cannot retract because by doing so I would be encouraging the pope to continue misleading the Christian church. The third group of writings consist of books in which I have attacked certain people who defended the errors of the pope and the church. In some instances I used rather harsh language. I  apologize for the strong language, but I cannot retract the content of these books. If I am shown that I am in error, I will be the first one to throw all these books into the fire. But, I must warn you to be careful lest by quenching this controversy and dissension you should persecute the holy Word of God and draw down upon yourselves a flood of unbearable evils. I herewith commend myself to your Majesty with the humble plea that you will not permit my accusers to make me hateful in your eyes without cause.”

The hearing was not going as Luther’s enemies had expected. They wanted only a “yes” or “no” answer to the two questions they had addressed to him. But Luther had taken the opportunity to confess his faith and his conviction that God’s Word is the only sure guide in matters pertaining to man’s eternal salvation. After some abusive remarks about Luther’s address, Dr. Eck said to Luther, “You have not spoken to the point. Give us an answer without elaborations.  Do you or do you not retract what you have written in these books?” Luther gave his answer in a clear, firm voice, “Since your majesty demands a simple answer, I will give you one. Unless I am convicted by Scriptures and clear reasoning—I do not trust in popes and councils since they have often been wrong—my conscience is bound to the Word of God. I neither can nor will recant anything, for to act against my conscience is wrong and dangerous. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

There was a short, stunned silence. Then tumult broke out. Eck tried to speak, but he could not be heard above the noise. The  emperor signaled to the imperial herald to take Luther away, and then he angrily left the hall. The hearing was over. Friends quickly surrounded Luther and made a way for him out of the hall. As they approached the doorway, the Spaniards shouted, “To the stake! To the stake!” Once outside, Luther raised his arms in triumph and shouted, “I am through! I am through.” God had given him the faith and courage to stand firm in his convictions before his most powerful enemies.

From The Life and Faith of Martin Luther, by Adolph F. Fehlauer. © 1981 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: Thierry Ehrmann (used under CC BY 2.0)