Charles V Against Luther
Aleander, the papal legate, clearly perceived the effect produced by Luther's speech. He feared, as never before, for the security of the Romish power, and resolved to employ every means at his command to effect the Reformer's overthrow. With all the eloquence and diplomatic skill for which he was so eminently distinguished, he represented to the youthful emperor the folly and danger of sacrificing, in the cause of an insignificant monk, the friendship and support of the powerful see of Rome.
His words were not without effect. On the day following Luther's answer, Charles Fifth caused a message to be presented to the diet, announcing his determination to carry out the policy of his predecessors to maintain and protect the Catholic religion. Since Luther had refused to renounce his errors, the most vigorous measures should be employed against him and the heresies he taught. Nevertheless, the safe-conduct granted him must be respected; and before proceedings against him could be instituted, he must be allowed to reach his home in safety.
"I am firmly resolved to tread in the footsteps of my ancestors," wrote the monarch. Thus he took his position, refusing to accept any light in advance of what his fathers had received, or perform any duty that his fathers had not performed.
He seemed to feel that a change of religious views would be inconsistent with the dignity of a great king. There are many at the present day thus clinging to the customs and traditions of their fathers. When the Lord sends them additional light, they refuse to accept it, because, not having been granted to their fathers, it was not received by them. We are not placed where our fathers were, consequently our duties and responsibilities are not the same as theirs. We shall not be approved of God in looking to the example of our fathers to determine our duty instead of searching the word of truth for ourselves.
Were our fathers engaged in an evil work? We are not to do wickedly because they did. Were they devoted to a good work? We can imitate them only by performing our duty as faithfully as they performed theirs; by heeding the light granted to us as faithfully as they heeded that which shone upon them; in short, by doing as they would have done had they lived in our day, and enjoyed our privileges and opportunities. Our responsibility is greater than was that of our ancestors. We are accountable for the light which they received, and which was handed, down as an inheritance for us, and we are also accountable for the additional light which is now shining upon us from the sure word of prophecy. The truth that has convinced the understanding or convicted the soul, by whatever means it may have been given, will judge us at the last great day. No one will be condemned because he did not believe that which was never presented to his understanding or urged upon his conscience. Said Christ of the unbelieving Jews: "If I had not come, and spoken unto them, they had not had sin; but now they have no cloak for their sin."
The same divine power had spoken through Luther to the emperor and princes of Germany. And as the light shone forth from God's word, his Spirit pleaded for the last time with many in that assembly. Had not this appeal been presented to their understanding, their sin had not been so great. But the truth had stood forth in direct and unmistakable contrast with error; therefore their rejection of it sealed their condemnation.
The emperor decides that he will not step out of the royal path of custom, even to walk in the ways of truth and righteousness. Because his fathers did, he will uphold the papacy, with all its cruelty and corruption. With this decision, his day of mercy forever ended.
As Pilate, centuries before, had permitted pride and love of popularity to close his heart against the world's Redeemer; as the trembling Felix bade the messenger of truth, "Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee;" as the proud Agrippa confessed, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian," yet turned away from the Heaven-sent message,--so had Charles Fifth, yielding to the dictates of worldly pride and policy, refused his last call from God.
Charles had announced his decision in the case of Luther without previous consultation with the diet. This hasty and independent act of the youthful emperor excited the displeasure of that august body. Two opposite parties at once appeared. Several of the pope's adherents demanded that Luther's safe-conduct should not be respected. "The Rhine," they said, "should receive his ashes, as it had received those of John Huss a century ago." In after years it was a cause of regret to Charles that he did not act upon this base proposition. "I confess," he said toward the close of his life, "that I committed a great fault by permitting Luther to live. I was not obliged to keep my promise with him; that heretic had offended a Master greater than I,-- God himself. I might and I ought to have broken my word, and to have avenged the insult he had committed against God. It is because I did not put him to death, that heresy has not ceased to advance. His death would have stifled it in the cradle." So great was the darkness which came upon the mind that had willfully rejected the light of truth.
The proposition of the Romanists excited great alarm among the friends of the Reformer. And even one of his inveterate enemies, a duke of Saxony, denounced the infamous suggestion, affirming that the German princes would not tolerate the violation of a safe-conduct. "Such perfidy," he said, "befits not the ancient good faith of the Germans." Other princes also, who were attached to the Roman Church, supported this protest, and the peril that threatened the life of Luther gradually disappeared.
Two days were spent by the diet in the deliberation upon the proposition of the emperor. Rumors of the designs against Luther were widely circulated, causing great excitement throughout the city. The Reformer had made many friends, who, knowing the treacherous cruelty of Rome toward all that dared expose her corruptions, resolved that he should not be sacrificed. More than four hundred nobles pledged themselves to protect him. Not a few openly denounced the royal message as evincing a weak submission to the controlling power of Rome. On the gates of houses and in public places, placards were posted, some condemning and others sustaining Luther. On one of them were written merely those significant words of the wise man: "Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child." The popular enthusiasm in Luther's favor throughout all Germany convinced both the emperor and the diet that any injustice shown him would endanger the peace of the empire, and even the stability of the throne.
There were many who loved and honored the Reformer, and wished to secure his safety, while at the same time they were desirous not to break with the Roman power. Hoping to accomplish this object, the German princes came in a body to the emperor to request time for further efforts for a reconciliation. "I will not depart from what I have determined," said he; "I will authorize no one to have any official communication with Luther." "But," he added, "I will allow the man three days' consideration, during which time any one may exhort him privately as he may think fit."
Many of the Reformer's friends hoped that a private conference would prove successful. But the Elector of Saxony, who knew Luther better, felt assured that he would stand firm. In a letter to his brother, Duke John of Saxony, Frederic expressed his anxiety for Luther's safety, and his own willingness to undertake his defense. "You can hardly imagine," he continued, "how I am beset by the partisans of Rome. If I were to tell you all, you would hear strange things. They are bent upon his ruin; and if any one evinces the least interest in his safety, he is instantly cried down as a heretic. May God, who forsaketh not the cause of the righteous, bring the struggle to a happy issue."
Frederic maintained a studied reserve toward the Reformer, carefully concealing his real feelings, while at the same time he guarded him with tireless vigilance, watching all his movements and all those of his enemies. But there were many who made no attempt to conceal their sympathy. Princes, barons, knights, gentlemen, ecclesiastics, and common people surrounded Luther's lodgings, entering and gazing upon him as though he were something more than human. Even those who believed him to be in error could not but admire that nobility of soul which led him to peril his life rather than violate his conscience.