October 31, 2021
Text: John 8:31-36
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32; ESV). The Word of God, that was the motivating force behind all that Luther did and taught as a doctor and pastor of the Church. He had discovered the freeing Word of the Gospel: All our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, because of His sin-atoning work, and our works contribute nothing to that. Justification, righteousness before God, is a gift given freely by God, by grace alone. And it is received by faith alone, apart from works. So the great solas of the Reformation: Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone. And the Word of Christ in which we abide, Scripture alone. Luther was even moved by this freeing Word of the Gospel to change his name for a time. It was fashionable among intellectuals in the 16th Century to take on Greek names, and Luther, according to this custom, began to sign his name, “Martinus Eleutheros,” which is “Martin the Free”! Because if you abide in the Word of Christ, the truth will set you free! Gospel: Free from sin, free from death, free from the condemnation of the Law, free from the devil, free from hell. Free in Christ who alone has redeemed you.
But then, it didn’t seem like the Word had brought him freedom when, on April 17, 1521, 500 years ago, Luther first appeared before the Imperial Diet of Worms to which he’d been summoned to answer for the charge of heresy. Sure, the Emperor had granted him supposed “safe conduct,” but Luther knew how this worked. If the charge stuck, Luther would be a condemned man. And safe conduct or no, if an accident should happen, if the crowds became a bloodthirsty mob suddenly devoted to orthodoxy, or if some vigilantes should overtake Luther in the woods on his way back to Wittenberg, well… who could blame the Emperor for the actions of others? Certainly Dr. Luther was well-aware of the history of John Huss 106 years earlier, who had also been granted safe conduct to the Council of Constance, and was nonetheless burned at the stake there for teaching things very similar to those of Luther.
At the very least, though, Luther thought he was being given an opportunity here to explain himself and his teachings before the Emperor and nobles and representatives of the Church. But when he entered the hall, there between him and the enthroned Emperor was a table stacked with his writings. The moderator asked him two questions, to which he was to respond with a simple “yes” or “no.” “Are these your books? Will you recant them?” No discussion. No argument. Recant and live. Refuse to recant, and, well… you have a safe conduct. But let’s not forget what happened to Huss.
Luther was surprised. In spite of all he knew, he had come in good faith, to discuss, to debate, to repent wherever he was proven wrong by Scripture, but to maintain his confession wherever he was proven right by Scripture. But that wasn’t on the Imperial agenda. What now? He need time. To think. To pray. To receive Christian counsel from friends. To meditate on God’s Word. The Emperor gave him a day. But be warned. The same two questions will be asked tomorrow.
Can you imagine the struggle that night? Where are You, Lord? Is this the freedom You promised? Why don’t You rise up and smite Your enemies and grant victory to Your Word? Or… Is it possible? Have I been wrong all this time? Am I incapable of understanding the Word You have spoken? Why am I, alone, standing before the greatest powers on earth, in Church and State, contending for the truth of Gospel? Maybe, in spite of all my work and advanced learning, I don’t know the truth after all. And maybe, tomorrow, I’ll be anything but free. This is the true meaning of the phrase, “dark night of the soul.”
But God does not forsake His children in their hour of despair. Remember the activities in which Luther was engaged that night. Prayer. Christian counsel from brothers in Christ. And most importantly, the Word… The Word of Jesus Christ. And by that Word, God pours out His Spirit, who opens mouths to faithful confession of Christ and His Word, even unto death.
So it was with renewed resolve the next day that Luther came before the Emperor and the Diet. The same two questions. “Are these your books?” “Yes.” “Will you recant?” Not so fast. The books aren’t all of the same kind. Some are devotional, dealing with faith and life such that even Luther’s enemies must agree with them. Surely he cannot retract these. Then there are books which expose the abuses and corruption of the papacy. To recant these would be to participate in abuse and wickedness. Finally, there are some writings full of invective against Luther’s papal enemies. These were too harsh, he admits. He repents of his bitter and vengeful words. But he does not retract the writings. Because, again, to do so would be to leave the papal abuses and corruption unchallenged. We learn something very important here. Even in the most righteous cause, we should always examine ourselves, our actions, our words, and in godly humility, repent wherever we are wrong… even as we maintain our confession of the truth. We must ever be repenting of our own sins if we are to help our neighbor see and repent of his.
But again, the questions call for a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and the Christian must let his “yes” be yes, and his “no,” no (James 5:12). Dr. Luther makes his answer: “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience… Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen.”
When we make such a confession, we must be ready to endure the consequences, whatever they may be. That is, we must be ready to suffer. We should obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). We should not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. We should rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10:28). We must remember that whoever denies Jesus before men, Jesus will also deny before His Father in heaven. But whoever confesses Him before men, Jesus will also confess before His Father in heaven (Matt. 10:32-33). Blessed are you when others revile you, and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account. Rejoice and be glad, for so they persecuted the prophets and apostles and Christian martyrs before you (Matt. 5:11-12). They loved not their lives even unto death (Rev. 12:11). And so you. They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Jesus’ Name (Acts 5:41). And so you. Luther knew all of this. The truth sets you free… from sin and death and hell and Satan. But it does not set you free from suffering. Not until the end. The Promise is not that you won’t suffer, but that God will not forsake you in suffering, and He will bring you through it to Himself. Huss died in the fire. The Apostles, the Prophets, the faithful martyrs, all suffered greatly for the truth of God’s Word, and most died horrific deaths. Luther lived, but no one in Worms that day thought it likely. As it happened, he was condemned as a heretic. And on his way back to Wittenberg, wouldn’t you know it, a band of vigilantes did fall upon him in the woods. They threw a sack over his head and led him away captive on horseback. Thank God, they were actually secret agents of Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise, who took him into hiding at the Wartburg Castle. Disguised as Junker Jörg, Kight George, Luther was safe. Lonely and depressed, to be sure. Still suffering. But you know what God gave Luther to accomplish during this exile in what Luther called his Patmos? The translation of the New Testament into German, the beginning of Luther’s German Bible. And a lot of other writing, of course. But it is safe to say that Luther’s translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular, the language of the people, paved the way for your own access to Scripture in English. Godly suffering is never without fruit. Our Lord’s suffering brought us eternal salvation. Luther’s gave us the Scriptures in our own tongue, as well as this great theological heritage we call Lutheranism. God has done this for us. In spite of the suffering. Through the suffering. All His gift. Grace. Alone.
There are times we are called upon to suffer for the truth of the Gospel. This call comes from God our heavenly Father, who lovingly lays the holy cross upon us. You know how it is now. Perhaps a dear friend, or a beloved family member, takes offense at Christ and His Word, and they take it out on you. We know that the earthly powers take offense and oppose Christ and His Gospel. They want to be lord in your conscience, but there is no room for them there, where Christ alone reigns. What will happen when they pass laws that contradict the truth you know from God’s Word, that make illegal the things you believe, teach, and confess? When it is difficult to find or keep a job, because employers note, as they examine your social media, that you belong to a Bible believing Church, and that you may actually (gasp!) believe the Bible yourself?! What will happen when the arrests begin, the reeducation camps, and yes, the executions? Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and… spouse? It won’t be easy. Freedom doesn’t mean easy. There will be pain. But above all, there will be Jesus… Who has never forsaken us! And Who never will! There will be all the benefits of His cross and death for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. There will be His resurrection life! There will be His Word, His Sacraments, consolation from Christian brothers and sisters, His Church gathered around His gifts. And there will be His Promise that He will take your suffering on account of His Name and His Gospel, and turn it into good for you, and for His people, in His way, according to His plan. And in the End, you know… He will wipe away your tears.
So here you stand in your confession of Christ, right where Luther stood. In truth, you can do no other. Because it is only standing here, in the truth, abiding in God’s Word, that you have true freedom. Because this truth gives you Jesus, God’s own Son, your only Savior from sin, death, and condemnation. And if this Son sets you free, you are free, indeed (John 8:36). And He has. So don’t move an inch from His Word. God is helping you. Amen. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 History of the Christian Church, vol. VII, ch. 3, sec. 55, quoted in https://www.christian-history.org/diet-of-worms.html.