Luther's Second Answer Before the Diet
When Luther was again ushered into the presence of the diet, his countenance bore no trace of fear or embarrassment. Humble and peaceful, yet grandly brave and noble, he stood as God's witness among the great ones of earth.
The imperial officer now demanded his decision concerning the second question,--whether he was prepared to defend his books as a whole, or desired to retract any part of them.
Luther made his answer in a subdued and humble tone, without violence or passion. His demeanor was diffident and respectful, yet he manifested a confidence and joy that surprised the assembly.
After imploring the indulgence of the diet if by reason of his secluded, monastic life he should neglect any of the customary proprieties of courtly address, he observed that his published works were not all of the same character. In some he had treated of faith and good works with such plainness and Christian simplicity that even his enemies were obliged to confess them not only harmless but profitable. To retract these would be to condemn truths which all parties confessed.
The second class of these works were directed against popery, exposing those who by their teaching and example were corrupting all Christendom, both in body and soul. No one, said he, can deny nor conceal that by the laws and doctrines of the popes the consciences of Christians are held in bondage, burdened and tormented, and that the property and wealth of Christendom, especially of the German nation, are devoured by the incredible rapacity of Rome. Were I to revoke what I have written on this subject, what should I do but strengthen this tyranny, and open a wider door to so many and great impieties?
The third class of his books were written against individuals who undertook the defense of Romish tyranny, and the overthrow of the doctrines which he had inculcated. Concerning these he said, I freely confess that I have been more violent than was becoming. I do not think myself a saint; but even these books I cannot revoke, because in so doing I should sanction the impieties of my opponents, and they would then take occasion to crush God's people with still greater cruelty.
But, he continued, as I am a mere man, and not God, I will defend myself as did Christ, who said, "If I have spoken evil bear witness against me." By the mercy of God, I implore your imperial majesty, or any one else who can, whoever he may be, to prove to me from the writings of the prophets that I am in error. As soon as I shall be convinced, I will instantly retract all my errors, and will be the first to cast my books into the fire.
What I have just said, I think will clearly show that I have well considered and weighed the dangers to which I am exposing myself; but far from being dismayed by them, I rejoice exceedingly to see the gospel this day as of old a cause of disturbance and disagreement. It is the character and destiny of God's word. Said Christ, "I came not to send peace, but a sword." God is wonderful and awful in his counsels. Let us have a care lest in our endeavors to arrest discords we be found to fight against the holy word of God, and bring down upon our heads a frightful deluge of inextricable dangers, present disaster, and everlasting desolations. Let us have a care lest the reign of the young and noble prince, the Emperor Charles, on whom, next to God, we build so many hopes, should not only commence, but continue and terminate its course, under the most fatal auspices. I might cite examples drawn from the oracles of God. I might speak of Pharaohs, of kings of Babylon or of Israel, who were never more contributing to their own ruin than when, by measures in appearance most prudent, they thought to establish their authority. God removeth the mountains, and they know not.
In speaking thus, I do not suppose that such noble princes have need of my poor judgment; but I wish to acquit myself of a duty that Germany has a right to expect from her children. And so, commending myself to your august majesty, and your most serene highnesses, I beseech you, in all humility, not to permit the hatred of mine enemies to rain upon me an indignation I have not deserved.
Luther had spoken in German; he was requested to repeat the same words in Latin. The German tongue did not please the emperor, nor was it readily comprehended by the Spanish and Italian courtiers. Though much exhausted by the previous effort, Luther complied with the request, and repeated his speech in Latin with the same clearness and energy as at the first. God in his 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 with great clearness the points presented. The Spirit of God set home the truth, and a deep and lasting impression was made. The Reformation had gained a victory which would tell with great power against the papacy.
But those who stubbornly closed their eyes to the light, who were determined not to be convinced of the truth, were enraged at the power of Luther's words. Of this class was the spokesman of the diet. As Luther ceased speaking, this official said angrily, "You have not given any answer to the inquiry put to you. You are not to question the decision of the councils; you are required to return a clear and distinct answer. Will you, or will you not retract?"
Luther answered firmly, "Since your most serene majesty and your high mightiness require of me a simple, clear, and direct answer, I will give one; and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils; because it is as clear as day that they have often erred and contradicted each other. If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture or by cogent reasons; if I am not satisfied by the very texts that I have cited; and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God's word, I neither can nor will retract anything, for it cannot be right for a Christian to speak against his conscience." Then turning his eyes upon the assembly before which he stood, and which held his life in their hands, he said, "Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me! Amen!"
So stands this righteous man upon the sure foundation, the prophets and apostles, Christ himself being the chief corner-stone. Firm and fearless at his post of duty is the great Reformer. Faithful among the faithless, unheeding the storms of malice and revenge, he stands a mighty cedar of Lebanon among the trees of the forest. While the passions and pollutions of the multitude surge around him like waves of the great deep, he stands, a Heaven-sent beacon, to warn the imperiled mariner of the hidden shoal and the rocky shore.
Luther knows not what may be his fate; but he knows that the cause of truth can never fail, and he is ready to die, if need be, knowing that by death he may serve the truth better than by his life. Light from the throne of God illuminated his countenance. His greatness and purity of character, his peace and joy of heart, were manifest to all, as he testified against the power of error, and witnessed to the superiority of that faith that overcomes the world.
When the Reformer ceased speaking, the whole assembly were for a time motionless with amazement. Several of the princes were charmed with his frankness and nobility of soul. The emperor himself, deeply impressed, exclaimed, "The monk speaks with an intrepid heart and unshaken courage." The Spaniards and Italians were confounded, and began to ridicule that moral grandeur which their base and unprincipled minds could not comprehend.
The partisans of Rome had been worsted; their cause appeared in a most unfavorable light. They sought to maintain their power, not by appealing to the Scriptures to show Luther the error of his course, but by a resort to threats, Rome's unfailing argument. Said the spokesman of the diet, angrily addressing Luther, "If you do not retract, the emperor and the States of the empire will proceed to consider how to deal with an obstinate heretic.'
Luther's friends, who had with great joy listened to his noble defense, trembled at these words; but the doctor himself said firmly, "May God be my helper! for I can retract nothing."
Luther then withdrew, while the princes consulted. When he was called in again, their orator thus addressed him, "Martin, you have not spoken with that humility which befits your condition. The distinction you have drawn as to your works was needless; for if you retracted such as contain errors, the emperor would not allow the rest to be burned. It is absurd to require to be refuted by Scripture, when you have been revising heresies condemned by the General Council of Constance. The emperor therefore commands you to say simply, Yes, or No, whether you mean to affirm what you have advanced, or whether you desire to retract any part thereof."
Luther replied calmly, "I have no other answer to give than that I have already given."
They understood him perfectly. Firm as a rock he stood, while the fiercest billows of worldly power beat harmlessly against him. The simple energy of his words, his fearless bearing, his calm, speaking eye, and the unalterable determination expressed in every word and act, made a deep impression upon the assembly. There was no longer the slightest hope that he could be induced, either by promises or threats, to yield to the mandate of Rome. The monk had triumphed over the rulers of this world.
Charles the Fifth rose from his seat, and the whole assembly rose at the same time. "The diet will meet again tomorrow morning to hear the emperor's decision," announced the chancellor. There were many in that company actuated by the same spirit which inspired the Pharisees of old. They thirsted for the blood of him whose arguments they could not controvert. Yet Luther, understanding his danger, had spoken to all with Christian dignity and calmness. His words had been free from pride, passion, and misrepresentation. He lost sight of himself, and of the great men surrounding him, and felt only that he was in the presence of One infinitely superior to popes, prelates, kings, and emperors. And Christ, reigning in Luther's heart, spoke through his testimony with a power and grandeur that for the time inspired both friends and foes with awe and wonder. The converting power of God was in that council, impressing the hearts of the chiefs of the empire.
The pope's adherents, feeling that they had been defeated, angrily asked why the chancellor of the diet had not sooner interrupted the guilty monk. Several of the princes openly acknowledged the justice of Luther's cause. Many were convinced of the truth; but with some the impressions received were not lasting. The seed sown had not much deepness of earth, and the heat of opposition caused it to wither away. There was another class who did not at the time express their convictions, but who, having searched the Scriptures for themselves, at a future time declared with great boldness for the Reformation.
The Elector Frederic had looked forward with anxiety to Luther's appearance before the diet, and with deep emotion he listened to his speech. He rejoiced at the doctor's courage, firmness, and self-possession, and was proud of being his protector. He contrasted the parties in contest; on the one hand the world and the church, in all their pride and power, and on the other a single obscure monk; and he saw the wisdom of popes, kings, and prelates brought to naught by the power of truth. The papacy had sustained a defeat which would be felt among all nations and in all ages.