Captive to the Word of God

Historians continue to debate what exactly Martin Luther said at the Diet of Worms in the spring of 1521. The Diet of Worms was not a weight-loss program pushing the protein value of night crawlers. A “diet” was a formal meeting or hearing, in this case called by the emperor. Worms was an imperial city on the Rhine, today about an hour’s drive from Frankfurt. More than 100 imperial diets were held at Worms in the Middle Ages. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to the diet, hoping Luther would recant his rebellious views, then sweeping Europe. 

Instead on April 16, Luther stood firm, resulting in the Edict of Worms, which included this passage, “For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves…” Did Luther say, “Here I stand!” in his defense at the diet? Some scholars see it appearing only in later editions of his speech. 

Luther at the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner

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Frankly, Worms without “Here I stand” feels like Lincoln at Gettysburg without “Four score and seven years ago…” or JFK in his inaugural speech without “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” If it shows up in later editions, most of us would say, “we’ll trust those later editions."

The legacy of Luther’s speech at Worms goes far deeper than a courageous stand on principle. Luther stood strong because, as he said (and we know he said this): “I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” 

Some would make that a mere humanistic triumph of individual conscience and freedom, fitting the time of the Renaissance. It was so much more than that. He stood for the truth of God’s Word, echoing the words of his Savior, who prayed to His Father, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17). 

When Luther said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” the authority of the inspired Scriptures found a champion. The pope and emperor would not silence the Word of God. 

In a time when the Word of God is being trumped repeatedly by court rulings and legislation, cultural causes and relative truth, more such champions are needed. We who walk on the shoulders of Luther must be today’s rebellious voices, shaking up the state and even the greater church, and we must in our conscience stand on the truth of God’s Word. In a time when so many live by the premise, “If I say it, it is true,” we must be ready to respond with, “But God says …” 

Be ready to be ridiculed. You likely won’t be labeled a heretic by anyone. There is not enough commitment to truth today to find anyone heretical. They will see you, though, as out of date, prudish, irrelevant, judgmental, absolutist and hypocritical. Take your Reformation stand whenever you can and do it winsomely, your speech seasoned with salt and with a humility sure to disarm your assailant. 

Amos 3:8 catches so well this being held captive by the Word: “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” It is one of the great paradoxes and ironies of our faith; that we who live in the freedom of the Gospel celebrate life by a captivity to the Word.